HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — After starting what Hofstra Pride head coach Joe Mihalich considers the “second season” by ending the calendar year with a win, Mihalich’s team can finally feel good about turning the page on the 2015 portion of its schedule and perhaps begin living up to some lofty preseason expectations a little more in 2016.
Hofstra (9-4, 1-0 Colonial Athletic Association), the CAA preseason favorite, hadn’t always impressed Mihalich while navigating through its out-of-conference schedule with inconsistent play.
But on the final day of 2015, the Pride took advantage of porous defense by the Delaware Blue Hens (5-7, 0-1 CAA), while riding 14 3-pointers and five starters who each scored in double figures to a 90-80 win at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday afternoon. The victory improved Hofstra to 51-31 all-time against its biggest rival.
“You divide the season into three parts — non-conference, conference and then postseason,” Mihalich said. “So a good start to the conference season. You’ve got to take care of your home court, and we did that. It’s a good feeling in that locker room. We won the other night (struggling to beat 1-10 Sacred Heart by seven points, at home, on Dec. 28) and felt like we lost, and we won today, and felt like we had a good, hard-earned win. So I saw some progress here.”
Graduate forward Denton Koon got Hofstra off to a good start by scoring 13 of his 17 (a Hofstra high for the former Princeton transfer) points in the opening half before CAA preseason Player of the Year choice, senior guard Juan’ya Green overcame a 1-for-6 start to make his last three shots and finish with a team-high 19 points and a game-high and career-tying-high 11 assists.
Koon humbly said he was “just kind of taking opportunities as I get them. Obviously, they were putting a lot of attention on Brian and ‘Ya, and Ameen… so just making plays when they presented themselves a little bit.”
Mihalich added of Koon, “He’s such a versatile guy. I mean, we can have him run the offense for us too. He just does a lot of things. He can really keep [opposing defenses] honest. He can drive it, he can shoot it, he can pass it. [He’s] a triple-headed monster there.”
Senior forward Ameen Tanksley also had 16 points, while sophomore center Rokas Gustys contributed 16 points and a team-high nine rebounds, and junior guard Brian Bernardi made half of his eight 3-point attempts to add 12 points.
Senior forward Malik Nichols also scored eight points, while making each of his four shots, and had a game-high four steals.
“I think that’s just the nature of our team,” Mihalich said. “There’s no plan to get everybody involved. It’s not like we say, ‘Okay, let’s make sure everybody gets seven shots each.’ It happened naturally. A lot of our guys can score, we’re a very unselfish team, and with someone like Juan’ya leading the way, that’s what happens.”
Although the Pride’s offense shot a solid 48.5 percent (32-for-66), including 42.4 percent (14-for-33) from behind the arc, Mihalich admitted that Hofstra still needs to improve at the other end of the floor, where Delaware had four scorers in double figures — sophomore guard Anthony Mosley (20 points), senior forward King Marvin-Davis (19 points) junior guard Cazmon Hayes (16 points) and sophomore guard Kory Holden (13 points).
While he was pleased with Hofstra’s offensive production, Mihalich noted that his team still needs to improve defensively.
“They got a lot of points but we scored a lot,” he said. “There were a lot of possessions. [Our defense] was good in spots [but could still be better].”
That much was evident early, during a very quick pace that featured a bunch of offense and little defense on either side, as the game was already tied at 14-apeice after only 4:19, prior to the first media timeout.
Trailing 10-6 after 3:05, Hofstra, which started 8-for-13 overall and 6-for-8 from 3-point range, used a 17-7 surge to lead, 33-26, with 8:40 left in first half.
However, the Blue Hens answered with a 12-4 spurt, to go back up, 38-37, before the Pride scored six of the final eight points of the half to lead, 43-40, at halftime.
Starting the second half on a 10-3 run, Hofstra built a 53-43 lead and forced a quick time out by Delaware on a 3-pointer by Tanksley just 1:49 after the break.
That margin was cut in half after a King-Davis jumper capped a 13-8 run that pulled the Blue Hens to within 61-56, with 13:24 remaining.
But after a Tanksley 3-pointer with 10:09 left ended a 9-4 Hofstra response, which pushed lead to 70-60, 3:15 later, the Pride never led by fewer than seven points thereafter, while leading by as much as 90-76, with 1:31 to play.
According to Mihalich, the difference from some of Hofstra’s prior, underwhelming, non-league performances, was “just some energy and enthusiasm, all those intangibles, all that coach speak, all that stuff. But it’s true. We had some life, we had some energy.”
That comment begged a couple of very different responses to the question of how the Pride has thus far handled the press clipping of Hofstra being called the team to beat in the CAA this season.
Before Green could answer, Mihalich said, “I hope you ask me the same question. I want to hear this answer.”
Shaking Mihalich’s half-in-jest, half-serious interruption, Green said, “We’re handling it okay. We’re not really worried about it. We’re just trying to [take it] one game at a time. We’re trying to use the motivation from last year when we [lost on] a buzzer-beater (in the CAA tournament semifinals, to top-seed William & Mary) to help give us the type of energy that we need.”
Mihalich take on the same inquiry?
“Not well, not well,” he said. “I read something… Cincinnati lost to Temple and then after the game, their coach was saying, ‘Our team thinks we’re good because everybody else is saying we’re good.’ They were 24th in the country or something like that. So it kind of hit me, we’ve got to remember, just because everybody else says we’re supposed to win the league, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the league. We’ve got to be a little more mature about that and handle it a little bit better, because all it is, is a prediction… I don’t think we’re handling it well. We’ve talked about that, so we’re going to do better.”
Mihalich’s message was clear to his players.
“Every game, we’ve got to come out and play a hundred percent and do everything that we can on the defensive end, if our offense doesn’t click [at times],” Green said. “We’ve got to get better on the defensive end.”
And as for last year’s CAA semifinal loss?
“We actually watched the video of it yesterday,” Green said. “It kind of motivated us for this game [today]. We don’t want to have that feeling no more. We want to come out and play hard.”
Doing so will be a challenge on the road, as Hofstra starts its CAA road schedule with a trip to Towson on Saturday, as part of the CAA’s grueling, mostly Thursday-Saturday schedule this season.
“It’s the same for everybody [in the CAA], but two games in three days is not good,” Mihalich said. “It’s hard to prepare. I’ll get on that tangent some other time.”
Showing some toughness for that game will be key. “I’ve always felt that one of the trademarks of Towson is how tough they are, physically tough,” Mihalich said. “We better bring our hard hats for [that] one, because if we don’t, we might as well just save the travel money and just stay here.”