HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — After needing only two years to bring Hofstra Pride men’s basketball back to respectability from a program that was in shambles prior to his arrival from Niagara, head coach Joe Mihalich is desperately trying to get his team to focus on the bigger picture as Hofstra attempts to live up to being the preseason favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association and reach the NCAA tournament this season.
Thus, despite ultimately seeing the Pride (2-0) beat up on the 0-3, Division II Molloy Lions, 96-64, at the Mack Sports Complex on Monday night, Mihalich’s first reaction to what became such an easy victory concentrated more on Hofstra’s flat start before it finally showed more urgency and got going.
Eventually, the Pride had five players score in double figures, led by 17 points each from its two primary go-to guys, senior guard and CAA preseason Player of the Year choice, Juan’ya Green, and forward Ameen Tanskley. Starting center, sophomore Rokas Gustys, added 12 points and a game-high 16 rebounds, and guard Malik Nichols (who played just 18 minutes) scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half.
Hofstra also exploded for 59 points in the second half on 63.6 percent (21-for-33) shooting, finished the night holding a 50-26 scoring edge in the paint and took 34 of the game’s 42 attempts at the foul line, where the Pride outscored the Lions, 21-4.
While all of that amounted to paradise for Hofstra, before its trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam tournament, Mihalich viewed the Pride’s play in the first half as anything but nirvana — especially when it came to underestimating the smaller, undermanned Lions.
“We talk about this a lot and I don’t know if our guys really understood it, but maybe after tonight’s experience, they will understand it better — it’s the idea of respect,” Mihalich said. “When you play this game, you respect yourself, you respect the game and you respect your opponent. Some of those components were missing, maybe all of them were missing that first half. But the second half, I felt like we did that. We played the game the right way.”
At the start, Hofstra missed four of its first five shots and trailed, 4-2, but the Pride made three of its next four shots while scoring nine unanswered points to lead, 11-4.
However, as the Pride missed its next seven shots, Molloy responded with an 8-2 run, to get within a point.
Green’s first basket, on a driving layup with 11:13 left in the opening half, capped a spurt of six straight Hofstra points to give the Pride some room breathing again, at 19-12.
Moments later, Green’s first 3-pointer, from the right wing, was answered by a trey from junior guard Jaylen Morris (who led the Lions with 15 points) and a layup by junior guard Charlie Marquardt (11 points), as Molloy surprisingly pulled to within 24-21, with 5:43 left in the half.
Going on an 8-3 spurt, Hofstra matched it largest lead of the half, at 32-24, on a 3-pointer by freshman guard Desure Buie (for his only points) before Green’s second trey, in the final minute of the half, kept the margin the same, at 37-29, by halftime — with the Pride shooting just 40.6 percent (13-for-32).
“I think you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Molloy,” Mihalich said. “They were scrappy, they were fired up, they were inspired, their coach did a great job with them. They played two games the last two days, they had a lot of firepower that first half. I have a lot of respect for [head] coach Mark Marquardt [and] for Molloy, how they played in the first half.”
Later on, Mihalich noted some other Division I schools how struggled far more with schools in lower divisions than Hofstra did in the first half with Molloy.
“This team that we played tonight, they’re in the same league as St. Thomas Aquinas, [which] beat St. John’s by 32 points (in a scrimmage to usher in the era of new head coach Chris Mullin). This team scrimmaged Adelphi, [which] beat Manhattan… and buried them. And then Iowa lost to a Division II team (Augustana, of South Dakota, on its home floor). So it’s happening out there, and so if you don’t play the game the right way, you’re not going to get better.”
That, Hofstra did, as soon as the second half began.
Getting a layup on the first possession of the second half, Green gave the Pride its first double-digit lead.
An offensive board by Gustys (which gave him 10 rebounds) and a putback, followed by a jumper from junior guard Brian Bernardi (seven points), another layup by Gustys and a pair of Green free throws, capped a 13-2 run to start the half, as the Pride ballooned its lead to 50-31.
An open 3-pointer by senior guard Brandon Williams (eight points) ended a string of 15 straight Molloy misses and a stretch of more than five minutes without a Lions basket. But a 21-8 run put Hofstra up 73-44, with 7:18 remaining, before the Pride took its largest lead, at 94-61, on a three-point play by graduate forward and Princeton transfer Denton Koon (11 points) with just under a minute left.
Mihalich said the second-half turnaround had everything to do with Hofstra ramping up its effort rather than changing strategy.
“[There were] no technical adjustments at all,” he said. “It was… ‘Guard your man, and make sure we rebound the ball, and let’s do what we [normally do well] in transition, and try to speed up the game a little bit.’
“At the end of the day, it’s about production. We tell the guys this all the time — ‘If you want to play, show us that you’re going to… make winning plays, to make the team win.’ In the second half, we couldn’t take [players like Gustys and Nichols] out. In the first half… they weren’t producing like they know they can.”
Next up for the Pride will be a much tougher test at the Paradise Jam, where Hofstra will get some good exposure on the CBS Sports Network, opening against Florida State, on Friday, before facing either DePaul or South Carolina on its side of the bracket. On the other side, will be Ohio, Tulsa, Indiana State and Norfolk State.
For now, Mihalich’s message about respecting all foes and playing hard over a full 40 minutes seems to have gotten through.
“Playing against a good, big team [like] Florida State, we know we’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game… from the beginning of the game,” Green said after listening to his coach’s assessment of the Hofstra’s performance against Molloy.
As for that larger vision leading toward March, Mihalich said of playing in the Paradise Jam, “It’s an honor to be invited to the tournament. It’s a prestigious tournament, it’s the one [early in the season that] everyone wants to go to… whether it’s this game we played tonight, or the three games we’ll play down there, the idea is to get us ready for league play, so we can be one of the best teams in the [CAA], and hopefully at the end of the [regular season], have a [great] chance to win the [CAA] tournament.”