HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The Hofstra Pride has relied heavily on its newcomers this season. Between 66 and 73 percent of its scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks have come from that group.
That type of dependency was evident again on Wednesday night, with junior forward Ameen Tanskley scoring 15 points, sophomore guard Brian Bernardi adding 12 points, junior guard Juan’ya Green providing 10 points and eight assists and junior guard Malik Nichols chipping in seven points and nine rebounds as the Pride (19-11, 10-7 in the Colonial Athletic Association) routed the last-place Charleston Cougars (8-22, 3-14 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex, 73-40.
But on Senior Night, the scoring of senior center Moussa Kone and the tough defense of graduate guard Dion Nesmith — after they were honored during pregame ceremonies — fittingly helped the Pride to a big first-half lead from which the Cougars were never able to recover.
Recording his second double-double of the season, Kone (16 points and 10 rebounds) was the only player to pull down double figure boards while leading all scorers on efficient 8-of-11 shooting. He also singlehandedly matched the 14 points Charleston was able to muster in the first half.
Asked if that has ever happened for him in a game, Kone responded after head coach Joe Mihalich chimed in first.
“Maybe in seventh grade?” Mihalich guessed incorrectly.
“I didn’t even start playing then,” Kone said with a smile. “It was the first time. I just felt like I had that kick. I was going good, shots were going in, and it just so happened that I had the same amount of points as the other team [at halftime].”
Patting Kone on the back as his center smiled, Mihalich admitted of Kone, “We don’t get him the ball enough, and that’s my fault. It was great to see him make me look stupid.”
Appropriately, Kone and Nesmith (seven points and seven rebounds) erased the Cougars’ first lead on Hofstra’s initial possession, as Nesmith drove along the left wing and assisted to Kone for a short jumper. Kone then dunked on the Pride’s next trip to tie the score at 4-4, and wipe out Charleston’s final edge of the evening.
It was all Hofstra from there.
Holding the Cougars to just 23.1 percent shooting (12-for-52), the Pride allowed its fewest points against a conference opponent during its 14-season CAA era and its least points overall since a 44-39 non-conference home win over Manhattan on December 9, 2009.
Only a late turnover by Bernardi, with Hofstra trying to run out the clock, and an ensuing layup with 1.6 seconds left, by sophomore guard Joe Chealy (11 points), gave Charleston multiple scorers in double figures while preventing the Pride from surrendering is lowest point total overall since joining the CAA.
“Without a doubt,” Mihalich responded when asked if it was his team’s best defensive performance of the season.
“We never let them get into a rhythm and it kept them off balance.”
Thoroughly out of sync, the Cougars missed eight straights shots and closed the half just 3-for-26 after making their first two field goal attempts, as Tanskley and Kone scored 10 points each to key a 20-5 run that forced a Charleston time out with the Pride up 22-9, with 6:41 left in the opening half.
After a combined 14 misses from 3-point range (including eight by Hofstra), Bernardi finally drained the game’s first trey to push Hofstra’s lead to 27-11.
A layup by Kone kept the margin at 16 before a Nesmith layup 1:43 before intermission provided the halftime score of 31-14.
Not only did Kone equal the Cougars’ scoring total by that point, but the Pride, which overcame 1-for-10 3-point shooting to shoot 51.9 percent overall for the half, had as many first-half field goals as Charleston had points.
As they did to start the first half, the Cougars made their first two shots to start the second half — including their first 3-point field goal — and scored first six points of the frame to get within 31-20. But they missed their next four shots and closed the game just 5-for-22.
Quickly increasing the lead back to a comfortable advantage, Green assisted on Nesmith’s first trey, made one of his own and assisted on another Bernardi triple as Hofstra doubled Charleston up, 40-20.
Although it only took the Cougars 7:10 to score as many points after the break as they did before it, Charleston was unable to get closer than 17 points the rest of the way.
Kone scored his only points of the second half on a putback off a missed 3-pointer by Bernardi, to move the Pride ahead by 21, but it was Green who accounted for the other five points during a 7-0 run that swelled the lead to 52-28, just before the midpoint of the half.
Following a layup by sophomore guard Canyon Barry (three points), the son of Hall of Famer Rick Barry (who was in attendance), the Pride scored the next five points to run its lead to 57-30, on a Tanskley trey with 7:34 remaining.
Nineteen seconds into the half, Barry made one of his only two free throws in the game, taking both as he always does, following the same unorthodox, trademark, underhand style his father used during his playing days.
Much later, a Nichols 3-point play, with 1:59 to go, widened the lead to a game-high 71-35.
An appreciative student section serenaded Kone and Nesmith with “Thank you, seniors!” chants in the final minute.
Afterwards, Mihalich reflected on the myriad of festivities that took place, from Senior Night to Hofstra’s student athletes — including Nesmith and freshman center Rokas Gustys (three points, five rebounds) — being honored for achieving at least 3.0 GPA’s at halftime, to promoting awareness for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, in tribute to Nicholas Colleluori, a former Hofstra lacrosse player who founded the HEADstrong Foundation prior to his tragic passing in 2006.
WRHU (Hofstra radio) alumnus Christian Heimall is presently battling the same disease, and was scheduled to attend the game.
Wearing a line green tie, as his own way of following the HEADstrong Foundation’s Lace Up awareness campaign of using shoelaces in the same color, Mihalich divulged how the strong level of inspiration his players had in playing for more than themselves.
“We played very well and we took care of business,” he said, flanked by Kone and Nesmith at the postgame press conference. “There were a lot of things going on tonight. It was Senior Night, which is an emotional time. It’s hard to stand there at half court and watch two people that you love, like these guys, walk out there with their parents, and you know it’s going to be the last time they play [at the Mack]… and I’m proud of these guys for keeping their composure and playing [well].”
Mihalich continued, “You can’t help but be inspired with what Christian Heimall is going through and HEADstrong, and how Nick went and founded this incredible organization. I told the team before the game, ‘There’s a lot of this going on, where coaches are wearing sneakers for [the fight against] cancer and we’re wearing pins, and this night is for this, and that night is for this, but this one’s dear to our hearts.’ “I told these kids, ‘When you’re putting those shoelaces in your shoes and lacing them up, let’s remember, this is one of us.’ They mean a lot to these guys.”
Mihalich also waxed poetic on the way Hofstra has moved within a victory of its first 20-win season in four years, after having 10 and seven wins, respectively, during the last two of the 15 seasons Mihalich coached at Niagara Mihalich guided the Pride to another 10-win season (with a lot of close losses) behind Kone, Nesmith and Zeke Upshaw, Hofstra’s best player before he graduated after last season.
“I’m just so happy for these two guys,” Mihalich said of Kone and Nesmith. “I think I speak for all of Hofstra, how indebted we are to people like Moussa Kone and Dion Nesmith, and you probably have to mention Zeke Upshaw too, because those three guys really helped us change the culture of Hofstra basketball and make it what it should be. So I’m really proud of them.”
As they prepare for one last run at a CAA title next month, Kone and Nesmith have no regrets, however their final college season may end.
Stating why he chose to stay at Hofstra and see things through when others bolted for different programs as Hofstra went through coaching changes, a lot of losses on the court and much off-court turmoil involving other former players, Kone said, “The first time I spoke to Coach Mihalich, I believed in everything he wanted to do, the way he wanted to change the whole organization and the program.
He added with a smile, “That’s one thing that really encouraged me to keep Hofstra in my blood.”
Nesmith, who played at Monmouth and Northeastern (which is currently in third place, a half-game out of first place in the CAA), added, “Getting to know Coach Mihalich is one of the big reasons I came here. It’s been one of the best things in my life. I’ve had a great time these two years… it’s been an all-around great experience here at Hofstra.”
But he and Kone aren’t done yet.
“Of course we want to do great when the tournament comes, but we’ve got to close out the regular season first,” Kone said of Hofstra’s next contest.
Finishing a disappointing 8-6 at home, including a 4-5 CAA mark at the Mack, the Pride will play its final regular season game on Saturday afternoon, while trying to avenge a six-point home loss to James Madison on Jan. 26 and finish a CAA-best 7-2 on the road in conference games.
Winning its regular season finale would also allow Hofstra to tie James Madison for fourth place in the conference as the two appear headed for a 4 seed vs. 5 seed quarterfinal matchup in the CAA tournament in Baltimore on March 7, regardless of Saturday’s outcome.
Mihalich said that could create a difficult situation to deal with, in balancing the desire to win and go to Baltimore on a high note without revealing too much that could help JMU in another rematch a week later, especially if a Hofstra-JMU tournament matchup is already set before they meet on Saturday.
“If you start thinking about those things, you don’t want to screw yourself up,” Mihalich said, while thinking. “You just want to make sure you’re playing good basketball. But there is something to that (possible back-to-back, regular season-tournament scenario against the same team).”