HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Through more than 30 minutes, the Sacred Heart Pioneers were poised to break their nine-game losing streak behind a possible career night from Cane Broome.
That was until the Hofstra Pride (8-4) finally got serious about sweeping away the pesky Pioneers (1-10) and their sweet-shooting sophomore guard, who yet again suffered the bitter taste of defeat.
Cane — who helped Sacred Heart to an 11-point second half lead while surpassing his team-leading season average of 19.4 points per game on a 3-pointer a mere 1:07 into the second half — had 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting with 9:38 remaining and his team still clinging to a five-point lead.
But Cane missed his final four shots and failed to scored again as Sacred Heart finished the same as its poor season record from the field over that time, while Hofstra ended on a 22-8 run to close its non-conference schedule with an 80-73 win at the Mack Sports Complex on Monday night.
“We started playing defense,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “It really is that simple. I wish I could sit here and say, ‘Boy, I never saw that guy (Broome) before. We didn’t talk about him at all.’ Right in this (postgame press conference) room, right here, we brought this thing (screen) down here and showed [how] that kid played great against UConn. It wasn’t a surprise. And when we [finally] played [tougher] defense, we guarded him pretty good.”
Leading the Pride’s second-half defensive efforts was senior forward Malik Nichols (six points, nine rebounds in 29 minutes), whom Mihalich praised.
“He’s one of our best on-the-ball defenders,” said Mihalich, who was at a loss as to why his team’s defensive intensity has remained inconsistent this season. “He made us win… for whatever reason, we don’t [always] defend like I think we can. I just said to the guys, ‘Can’t means won’t.’ [But] we’re gonna keep trying.”
Bottling up the Pioneers — who started the game 23-for-38 (60.5 percent) while building a 48-37 lead less than two minutes into the second half — was only half of the formula in producing a successful rally.
At the other end of the floor, was an entirely transformed offensive approach, led by senior guard Juan’ya Green, who scored 20 of his team-high 22 points after halftime.
“He did show some composure in the second half and made plays when we needed him to.”
After missing all four of his shots — three from behind the arc — and going to the foul line only twice in the opening half, the preseason Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year choice aggressively attacked the paint in the second half, when Green took only one more 3-pointer while going 6-for-8 from the floor and went 8-for-11 from the charity stripe.
Following suit, the rest of the Pride — which finished 8-for-11 from the floor after starting just 18-for-51 (35.3 percent) — helped Green flip the script.
Hofstra took more than half (18) of its 35 first-half shots from 3-points range (while making only five from that distance) and 10 free throw attempts (making eight) before intermission. However, the Pride took only nine 3s (making three) and attempted 19 free throws (making 12) in the second half.
“It’s one of our Achilles heals, probably, is we’re a good shooting team, so we probably settle too much for those shots. That was part of what we tried to do in the second half, was to drive a little bit more and let those shots come in a natural way as opposed to forcing them.”
Following four lead changes by the first media time out, Sacred Heart used an 18-6 run during which Broome had three consecutive layups, followed by five straight points from Hofstra transfer, graduate forward Jordan Allen (11 points, four assists), to lead, 37-29, before settling for a 41-37 halftime edge.
That lead might have been significantly larger if not for the play of Lithuanian sophomore center Rokas Gustys, who while grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds, scored a career-high 17 points (on 7-of-11 shooting), in only 16 foul-plagued minutes.
“I felt very comfortable and confident, but the fouls kind of stopped me from doing much better,” said Gustys, who had 11 points just past the mid-point of the first half, with the Pride up, 23-19, before he picked up the second of his four fouls late in the stanza.
“He got those two quick ones,” Mihalich said, before divulging, “I felt so bad because Rok’s mom’s in town. [She] came over from (Gustys’ native) Lithuania [and] he was playing good.”
Mihalich then joked to his center, “‘You’ve got to get her to come to every game.’ We’ve got to tell her to move here.”
He continued, “[Gustys] got those four fouls and then the other team went small, and we had to press and pick them up full court and go man-to-man, and we couldn’t get him back in the game… Malik Nichols won the game for us in the second half. [But] if it wasn’t for Rok [in the first half], we’d have had no chance. He was terrific.”
A 3-pointer by junior guard Brian Bernardi (18 points) gave the Pride the lead — its first in more than 20 minutes — for good, at 67-66, with 5:53 left.
Bernardi hit another trey on Hofstra’s next possession, to make it a four-point lead, before the Pride went up by six points on two separate occasions.
Reserve redshirt junior forward Matej Buovac (6 points) made a trey to cut that margin in half, with 1:20 to play, to end a string of seven straight Pioneer misses and more than seven minutes without a Sacred Heart field goal.
But good defense and four free throws by Green closed out Hofstra’s fourth win after trailing by at least nine points this season.
“We found a way to pull it out,” said a relieved yet frustrated Mihalich. “I’m a big believer in public praise and private criticism, so a lot of what we talked about in the locker room will kind of stay there. But I wish I could tell you why we’re one way or the other [so far this season]. I don’t know.
It keeps me up at night… I don’t know why can be the way we were against (in an upset win on a neutral floor on Nov. 20 over) Florida State and at LaSalle (on Dec. 2), and at St. Bonaventure (on Nov. 28) and then played the way we played tonight. I think it comes back to attitude and effort. When [those are okay], we’re pretty darn good, and then you see what happens when the attitude and effort aren’t the right way.
“Those are tough places to play and tough places to win, but we did it… I don’t know why that team doesn’t show up all the time, because the game’s fun when you show up all the time.”
Dismissing the notion that his club has shown the tendency to play either up or down to its competition, Mihalich added, “I don’t know if I believe in that. I’ve heard it before. The really good teams play the same way all the time.
That doesn’t mean they make every shot all the time, but they have the [necessary] energy and enthusiasm. We talk a lot of times about respect — respect yourself, respect this game that we are blessed and fortunate and privileged to play, and respect the opponent. And the really good teams do that. We didn’t do that tonight… but there are nights that we do. The Golden State Warriors didn’t do that when they [started 24-0 this year].”
Echoing his coach’s words, Bernardi suggested, “We’ve just got to stay together. We know that we have to come out a lot stronger than we have been for a couple for the last couple games. We know that we have to come out with the right attitude and effort. We’ve just got to be better in the first half than we have been.”
For Hofstra that time starts now, as the Pride likely won’t be headed for an at-large bid this season. Instead, its ticket to its first NCAA tournament since 2001 would almost certainly be through establishing itself as the team to beat in the CAA over the next two months, followed by a conference tournament win and an automatic NCAA berth in March.
That quest will begin with Hofstra’s CAA opener, when the Pride hosts longtime rival Delaware on the final day of the calendar year, on Thursday afternoon.
And it’s focus first for the team that many expect to win the CAA.
“We’ve got to decide we want to show up every night,” Mihalich said. “I don’t know who we’re beating in our conference playing the way we played tonight. But I know this — if we play the way we played against those [other] teams I mentioned earlier, we’ll have a good shot at beating everybody in the league.”