HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The last time the Vermont Catamounts visited the Mack Sports Complex (back then, the brand new Hofstra Arena), the Hofstra Pride was dominating the America East Conference, en route to consecutive league titles and NCAA tournament appearances 2000 and 2001.
While Vermont has since reached the NCAA tournament as America East champions five times, Hofstra, as Colonial Athletic Association members over the past 14 years, has yet to return to the Big Dance.
After each team had its respective hearts broken in close, last-second, semifinal losses during the America East and CAA tournaments on March 8, the Catamounts and Pride were looking to salvage what they could as they rekindled an old rivalry with their first-ever postseason meeting in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational tournament on Wednesday night.
Unlike the old days, Vermont (19-13) left the Mack victorious, with an 85-81 decision over Hofstra (20-14), after briefly taking its only double-digit lead in the final minutes, before barely hanging on for a rather close wire-to-wire win.
America East Junior forward Ethan O’Day led all scorers with 17 points for the Catamounts, which shot a blistering 72.7 percent (16-for-22) after going 13-for-30 (43.3 percent) in the opening half.
Freshman guard Trae Bell-Haynes and reserve freshman forward Zach McRoberts added 13 points each, while sophomore guard Dre Wills had 12 points and freshman forward Drew Urquhart scored 10 points for Vermont, which had players see between 17 and 26 minutes, while no Catamount took more than eight shots from the floor.
Junior guard Juan’ya Green led Hofstra with 16 points, as graduate guard Dion Nesmith scored 15, junior forward Ameen Tanksley had 14, reserve freshman forward Rokas Gustys added 13 (making all six of his shots in 16 minutes) and senior forward Moussa Kone chipped in nine points and a game-high nine rebounds in his last collegiate game.
However, in sharp contrast to Vermont’s solid balance, Green (5-for-15), Tanksley (4-for-18) and sophomore guard Brian Bernardi (six points on 2-for-10 shooting and seven rebounds) took the bulk of the Pride’s shots (43 of Hofstra’s 66), while combining for only 11 made field goals (25.6 percent).
Head coach Joe Mihalich, in his second rebuilding year at Hofstra following 15 seasons at Niagara, questioned his own team’s intensity after a good week of preparation.
“The spirit to play, I think the guys really had it, at least through the week, they did,” he said. “But they didn’t quite have it [tonight]. I can’t explain it.”
However, Mihalich also credited the Catamounts, who finished second in the America East before blowing a 12-point halftime lead at home and getting knocked out of their own conference tournament by third-seeded Stony Brook (which, as the other Long Island school besides Hofstra in the CBI, simultaneously lost on the opposite side of the CBI bracket in the final seconds at Mercer).
“We didn’t lose to a bunch of bums,” Mihalich said. “[Vermont’s] a very well-coached team, it’s hard to score on them, they’re efficient, they have a good balance, a good chemistry. We didn’t lose to a bad team. We lost to a good team.”
Starting fast, Vermont scored the first nine points (the first four, from O’Day) as the Catamounts started 5-for-9 from the floor and led, 12-2, after the Pride missed its initial four shots.
But Vermont missed five of its next six shots and Hofstra made its next four field goal attempts — including 3-pointers from Tanksley and Bernardi — and six of eight, to cap a 15-6 run and get within 18-17, on a trey from Green with 11:32 left in the opening half.
Answering with the next seven points, the Catamounts led 25-17, but a layup by Green and a Nesmith trey closed the gap to three points, before a 3-pointer from McRoberts pushed Vermont’s edge to 30-23 with 4:23 left before halftime.
An easy layup by Gustys (off of a feed from Bernardi) and a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Jamall Robinson (four points) trimmed the margin to just two points before a layup by Nesmith in the final minute of the half kept Hofstra within 33-30 by intermission.
Although the Pride made 60 percent (6-of-10) of its two-point shots in the first half, Hofstra elected to take nearly two-thirds of its field goal attempts in the stanza from behind the arc, where the Pride went just 5-for-19 (26.3 percent). Conversely, Vermont took 19 of its 30 first-half shots from inside the arc, while making 10.
After a Nesmith layup on the first possession of the second half brought Hofstra to within one point, the Catamounts’ lead fluctuated between three and five points over nearly the next four minutes, until a Green 3-pointer made it 42-40.
Urquhart and Kone — both previously scoreless in the game — each scored their teams’ next four points, before a Bernardi triple cut Vermont’s lead to 48-47, with 13:34 remaining.
A tough, hanging shot by Bell-Haynes over good defense from Gustys, and a 3-pointer by sophomore forward Kurt Steidl (nine points) moved the Catamounts lead to 55-49, their largest edge since the first half.
Gustys ended that run with a tip-in, but Green picked up his fourth foul 25 seconds later, with 11:38 to play.
With Green relegated to the bench for a while, the Pride hung in for a while, and trailed by only a point after a pair of Tanksley free throws with 8:55 left.
But six straight Vermont points grew the lead to 64-57, and Mihalich was forced to put Green back in exactly a minute later, when Nesmith fouled out (to end his college career) with 6:29 to go.
Tanksley, who had made a layup with 10:52 left, to keep the Catamounts’ lead at 56-53, ended a span of over 5½ minutes without a Pride field goal (which included five straight Hofstra misses) with a jumper that made it 69-63 with 5:15 left.
But four different Catamounts scored during a decisive 8-3 run that gave Vermont the game’s largest advantage, 77-66, with 3:25 to go.
Trying to save its season, the Pride stormed back with its second 15-6 run of the half to get within two points in the final minute.
Two free throws by Green, followed by a steal and 3-point play from junior forward Malik Nichols (four points) got the lead down to 81-77, with 1:24 to play, before a Green trey reduced the Catamounts’ advantage to 83-81, with 48.2 seconds remaining.
Robinson appeared to get a clean steal under the basket on the next possession, but a questionable call sent O’Day to the free throw line, where he made one of two foul shots to give Vermont an 84-81 lead with 29.3 seconds left.
An inexperienced officiating crew, including one referee calling just his 14th Division I game, whistled a total of 38 fouls (21 on the Pride) in the second half. As a result, there were a combined 51 free throws attempted in the second half (when Vermont went 21-for-30 at the foul line, while Hofstra was 16-for-21), after only total 10 foul shots were taken in the first half.
Looking to tie the game, Green begged unsuccessfully for a foul call after he missed a left wing 3-point attempt and fell to the ground with 11 seconds to go.
O’Day was fouled with 8.9 seconds left and made the second of two free throws to close the scoring, before Green missed a final 3-point try while trying in vain to lean in and draw contact for a possible 4-point play.
Besides the officiating, its own offensive inefficiency and defensive lapses, Hofstra also wasn’t able to adapt quite as well to an NCAA-mandated, experimental 30-second shot clock being used for the first time in the National Invitation Tournament and College Insider Tournament as well as in the CBI this year.
“We practiced with it all week long, and it was amazing to us how much of an effect it has,” Mihalich said. “I was the guy saying, ‘Ah, what’s the difference? Five seconds.’ But you know what? It’s a big difference because real quick, you’re looking up there and it’s time to make a play, and I think we’re headed in that direction. I think it’s going to happen,
“I think the charm in college basketball is… you can run some offense, you can control the game a little bit. And this isn’t a knock on the NBA, but that 24 seconds goes quick. Pretty quick, somebody’s just high ball screening… or somebody’s going 1-on-1. In the NBA, that’s okay, because it might be LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. But when there’s 350[-plus] college basketball teams, it’s nice to be able to run some offense and execute.”
Mihalich wouldn’t advocate to keep the current 35-second college shot clock, but he did say, “I wouldn’t want it to go lower than 30. Like I said, we don’t want to lose the charm. You hear all the time, ‘Oh, I love college basketball, I don’t like watching the NBA,’ I think part of it is that shot clock, where the [NBA] game [doesn’t have] a lot of teamwork.”
As Vermont (in the postseason for a seventh straight year), evened its all-time record in the eight-year CBI to 2-2, and will await the winner between Radford and Delaware State in the quarterfinals, Hofstra dropped to 0-2 in the event.
Still without a postseason win since earning consecutive NIT victories in 2006, the Pride was ironically hosting its first postseason contest on the same day that former Hofstra head coach Tom Pecora was fired after five poor years from Fordham, and exactly five years and one day after the last time the Pride hosted a postseason game — which also happened to be Pecora’s last game as Hofstra’s head coach, during a CBI loss to IUPUI in 2010.
The loss also occurred four nights after Pecora’s predecessor at Hofstra, Jay Wright, won his first conference tournament (in the Big East, with fourth-ranked Villanova) since guiding the Pride to their two America East tournament titles before Pecora took over at Hofstra for the 2001-02 season (after Pecora had spent seven years as an assistant at Hofstra, under Wright).
Puzzled by his team’s lack of urgency, Mihalich eventually focused on the larger picture of starting to turn around a program which during Kone’s career, won 10, seven and 10 games respectively over the previous three years, while hitting rock bottom with as many player arrests (six) for off-court incidents as Division I wins two seasons ago, the year before Mihalich’s arrival.
“We didn’t deserve to win,” he said. “We didn’t play like a team that was trying to win a championship. I can’t explain it.
“That being said, it was a time tonight in our locker room to thank Moussa and Dion, and really thanks this team for getting this program back to where it needs to be, it’s going to be, and it was the next step.
“It was a team that won 20 games, it was a team that finished two games out of first place in the league, even though there was [four-way] tie [for first place in the CAA], and it was a team that got to the postseason.”
Mihalich then made an interesting promise, if not an outright prediction about the way he envisions next year’s CAA tournament to end.
He said, “People like Moussa Kone and Dion Nesmith, I just told ‘em, ‘Next year, when we’re cutting those nets down (as CAA champions), we’re gonna save a piece of the net for them because they played a big part — especially Moussa, because he went through a dark time for this program. He was never a part of the problem. But at the same time, he became part of the solution by being the person he was. So we’re really proud of him for that.
“My heart aches for him that he couldn’t climb up a ladder this year, just like Dion.”
With a bit more energy than he had after Hofstra’s difficult one-point, double-overtime loss that eliminated the Pride from this year’s CAA tournament, Mihalich sounded ready to coach again the next day rather than next season.
“We’re down right now because of tonight, but we are real excited about this program [and] where we’re at,” he said. “I really mean this, I can’t wait to play again. It’s going to be a long wait, but I can’t wait to play again.
“We’re going to get picked high, and we’re going to embrace it, and we’re going to enjoy it, and were going to look forward to it, and we’re going to learn a lot from this year. We’re going to remember what was not good about this year.
“It’s exciting times for us. We’re down right now, but these are exciting times for Hofstra Basketball. It’ll take some time to get healthy, mentally and physically, but I can’t wait to get going again.”
All photos by Jon Wagner at the Mack Sports Complex in Hempstead, N.Y., on March 19. 2015