HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Clad in their alternate yellow uniforms, the Hofstra Pride lost a golden opportunity to pull even with the William & Mary Tribe and move within a game of first place in the Colonial Athletic Association at the Mack Sports Complex on Sunday.
But in a conference that’s been up for grabs all season, the Pride’s heartbreaking 80-78 home loss to the Tribe (17-10, 11-5 CAA) may not matter that much when the dust settles following the CAA tournament in early March.
Despite seeing his team never lead, trail for more than 37 minutes and fall behind by a game-high 10 points with 4:31 remaining — then rally to tie — only to lose on a pair of free throws by senior guard Marcus Thornton (game-high 23 points) with 3.7 seconds left, head coach Joe Mihalich remained steadfastly optimistic.
“Our guys fought like crazy,” he said. “[They played] with a lot of pride and a lot of heart… we’re down and frustrated, and feel like punching the wall and all that stuff, but we can’t wait to play again. I don’t know who wants to play us in March.”
Trying to get Hofstra to overtime, graduate guard Dion Nesmith (17 points, game-high nine assists) begged for a foul call after missing a last-second jumper, but later gave a more diplomatic account of the game’s final play.
“I probably took one too many dribbles,” he said “I probably should have pulled up from 3 and shot it… the ref didn’t call a foul, so [I guess it wasn’t one].”
Earlier, junior guard Juan’ya Green, who missed his first six field goal attempts, made all six of his second-half shots (including four from 3-point range) while scoring 18 of his team-high 21 points after halftime, to keep the Tribe from getting too far ahead.
However, the Pride (3-5 against CAA teams at the Mack this season) ultimately assured itself of a losing home record in conference play, despite going 6-2 on the road within the CAA thus far.
Instead of avenging its worst loss of the season (a 100-79 defeat at William & Mary on Jan. 28) and tying the Tribe for fourth place in the CAA, Hofstra (18-11, 9-7 CAA) remained in fifth place, two games behind William & Mary, which forged a four-way tie for first place atop the nation’s only conference in which every team has at least five league losses.
“It’s a crazy year,” Mihalich said. “William & Mary lost to (defending CAA champion, seventh-place) Delaware twice… it’s an incredible, crazy, crazy, crazy year.
“I don’t know who’s gonna win this league, I really don’t know. Everybody’s talking about how wide open it is. I’ve never been in a situation where a league’s more wide open. I have great respect for [William & Mary] and for all the other teams in this league, but I also have a lot of respect for our team.”
Thornton, who scored 16 points in the second half, needed seven more shots (18-11) to outscore his teammate, junior forward Terry Tarpey (21 points, game-high eight rebounds), as the Tribe overcame the absence of sophomore guard Daniel Dixon (out with a hamstring injury after scoring 18 points on 6-of-6 3-point shooting during William & Mary’s last win over Hofstra) and a canceled flight (due to snowy weather) followed by a long bus ride to Long Island.
If the Tribe was weary from its backup travel accommodations, it didn’t show, as William & Mary scored five straight points to lead, 11-5, less than 3½ minutes in, before Nesmith drained his second 3-pointer in as many attempts to cut that margin in half.
Even with Tarpey forced to the bench after picking up his second foul, just 4:46 in, the Tribe went on a 6-2 spurt to go up, 17-10.
Scoring the next seven points, Hofstra tied the game by the midpoint of the half on a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Brian Bernardi (15 points) and driving layups from junior forward Ameen Tanksley (11 points) and Nesmith.
Once again, William & Mary scored points five in a row, as Tarpey hit a trey and freshman guard Oliver Tot (four points) made a pair of free throws, to put the Tribe ahead, 22-17.
Another Bernardi 3-pointer closed the gap to 24-22 before Tarpey made his third triple (in four tries), to become the first player in the game to reach double figures in scoring. Senior forward Tom Schalk (four points) got on the board with a layup, to trigger a 9-2 run that pushed the Tribe’s lead to 33-24, with 6:04 left in the half.
A Nesmith jumper and a dunk and floater by junior reserve guard Malik Nichols (12 points in 18 minutes) drew the Pride to within 33-30.
Green finally scored his first points on a 3-pointer to cut Hofstra’s hole to 35-33, with 1:53 to play in the half, but William & Mary scored the next six points before one of two free throws by Nesmith (Hofstra’s only first-half scorer in double figures, with 11 points) made it 41-34 at the break.
With the Pride down by seven points early in the second half, Bernardi made a jumper and an ensuing free throw before Nichols stole a pass and went the other way by himself for an aggressive layup through traffic to trim Hofstra’s deficit to 45-43.
Thornton answered with a hanging layup in the lane to double the Tribe’s lead and stop a William & Mary scoring drought of 4:12.
Following a couple of free throws by Tarpey, consecutive treys by Green and Nesmith less than two minutes later, tied the game, 49-49, with 12:54 remaining. Nesmith was 3-for-4 from behind the arc at that point, but his teammates were a combined 4-for-18. Nevertheless, Nesmith’s 3-pointer was the Pride’s 256th of the season, to match a school record.
Responding with seven unanswered points, the Tribe moved back in front, 56-49, before a Bernardi 3-pointer from the left wing set a new Hofstra season 3-point mark.
Bernardi added to the program record with another triple, right after a Tarpey 3-pointer from the left corner went in and out and back in again.
A Tarpey layup made it 63-55, but two free throws from Tanskley and a Green trey brought the Pride within 63-60, with 7:31 to go.
But with Hofstra poised to either cut the lead further or tie the game, a careless pass by Green was stolen and taken by Tarpey the other way for a layup that gave the Tribe a 65-60 edge, with 6:49 left.
Green made amends by getting a steal and assist on a pass ahead to Nichols, but a right wing triple from Thornton extended William & Mary’s lead to 68-62.
Following a 3-point play by freshman forward Greg Malinowski (11 points), a backdoor layup by Tarpey gave the Tribe a 73-63 lead, with 4:31 left.
Trying desperately to bring his team back, consecutive 3s, before and after the under-4 timeout by Green, started a personal 8-2 run that sliced the margin to 75-71.
“My teammates just kept pushing me,” Green said. “They knew I was having a bad first half. They just kept telling me, ‘Try to make plays for each other and try to make plays for myself.’ I was just trying to get in the lane and create for others and find the open shot when I can.”
After missing his first four 3-point tries of the game, Tanksley finally made one from the left wing, and following a key stop, Green sank two free throws with 1:14 to go, to pull Hofstra within 77-76.
A late whistle on Nichols as Thornton kicked his legs out to draw three free throws, with 49.6 seconds left, seemed to have the Pride in trouble. But after making one foul shot, Thornton missed the last two.
Making a running layup along the left blocks, Green matched Tarpey and Thornton with a game-high of 21 points, with 34 ticks left, and more importantly, tied the game at 78-apeice.
After a William & Mary timeout with 19.5 seconds left, Nesmith took Hofstra’s foul to give with 10.7 seconds to go, setting the stage for Thornton to drive the lane against the Pride’s four-guard lineup. Nichols tried to draw a charge in the lane, but was called for a blocking foul. Thornton then closed the scoring at the line.
Although Hofstra came up short, Mihalich, Nesmith and Green sounded anything but defeated.
“I’m proud of the team,” Mihalich said. “We left a lot of good plays out there. We made a lot of bad plays, but I’m proud of these guys ‘cuz we wouldn’t go away… we could have packed it in. Next thing you know, it’s a tie game.
“There are some things we’ve got to clean up, there are some areas we’ve got to improve on… but if we can correct some things, I feel like we’re headed in the right direction… there’s a good feeling in the locker room right now. It’s hard to explain… these guys are playing for each other, the chemistry is good, it’s what you want.”
Still, one thing the Pride may have to work on is getting to the free throw line more and relying on the 3-point shot a little less. Although Hofstra (which leads the CAA in made 3-pointers, and is second only to William & Mary in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage) made 13 treys, the Pride hoisted 31 attempts from behind the arc (nearly half of its 64 overall), while getting to the line just 10 times (making seven).
In sharp contrast, the Tribe went 7-for-20 from 3-point range and 17-for-20 at the foul line, with an even balance of 10 3-point tries and 10 free throw attempts in each half.
Mihalich stopped short of blaming and unfriendly whistle for his club’s disparity in that area, saying, “When we drove it, nothing was happening. I thought Juan’ya, three or four or five times, drove it… the referees had nothing to do with that game.”
While the loss could make Hofstra’s road to a possible CAA tournament title and NCAA tournament berth tougher in next month’s conference tournament, the Pride still has a lot of fight left.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that just won’t quit,” Nesmith said. “We’ll never quit on each other, we’ll never quit on a game. We feel like no matter how much time is left, we always have a chance to win. So we just keep playing until the last whistle.”
Green added, “We didn’t play our best, but I think we can compete with the top teams in the league every day.”
Hofstra will play its final regular season home game against last-place Charleston on Wednesday night before tuning up for the CAA tournament in Baltimore with its regular season finale at James Madison (one of the three other teams currently tied with William & Mary for first place) on the final day of February next Saturday.