HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — It was exactly the way Juan’ya Green would have planned reaching a big career milestone, especially since the talented team-first leader of the Hofstra Pride has always cared more about winning than personal accolades.
So surpassing 2,000 career points at the moment his team needed him the most was as fitting as it was clutch for the preseason Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year choice.
After Hofstra (12-5, 4-1 CAA) squandered a dozen-point lead just before halftime — and fell behind the Drexel Dragons (3-13, 1-4 CAA) by two points with less than 5½ minutes left — Green took the game over, scoring the next 10 points in just over two minutes, to put the Pride up for good, as Hofstra rallied for a hard-fought 69-61 victory at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
“It’s a great honor and I’m thankful and grateful for it, to score 2,000 points,” Green said afterwards. “But I was just trying to not think about it as much and just make plays for my team. If I kept thinking about it, I would just try to score the ball all the time and think about that next point.”
Yet when Hofstra needed him to score the most, Green — who also dished out a game-high five assists while grabbing six rebounds — obliged. He moved one point past the 2,000-point mark by the end of his game-deciding personal scoring run before finishing with a game-high 25 points (on 8-of-13 shooting) and 2,003 for his career.
The senior guard’s first 1,131 points came over two seasons at Niagara under head coach Joe Mihalich, while playing there with longtime friend and fellow starter, forward Ameen Tanskley, before Green and Tanksley followed Mihalich to Hofstra.
Tanskley had a rough shooting night (going 3-for-13), but still ended barely shy of a double-double, with 10 points and nine rebounds, as one of four Hofstra players — along with Green, sophomore center Rokas Gustys (15 points and 10 rebounds) and junior guard Brian Bernardi (12 points) — that scored in double figures.
A loss would have been particularly disappointing for the Pride, not only because it was Hofstra’s 82nd all-time meeting with arch-rival Drexel — matching the most in school history against a single opponent (set against Delaware on Dec. 31) — but because the Pride is the CAA preseason favorite, while the Dragons were picked to finish eighth in the 10-team CAA. By winning, Hofstra also kept pace with last year’s CAA regular season champion and CAA tournament finalist William & Mary for first place in the conference.
“Good teams find a way to win,” Mihalich said. “I thought we did that tonight. [We are] a team that can shoot the ball. If we can do anything, we can shoot. [But] we shot 3-for-18 [from 3-point range, including 0-for-8 in the second half], and [still] won the game.”
Green’s late-game heroics helped the Pride overcome uncharacteristically poor 12-for-29 (41.4 percent) shooting in each half. However, that was offset in the first half by the Dragons missing their initial eight shots and 16 of their first 18 en route to a 10-for-38 opening half.
“I thought our defense was terrific in the first half,” Mihalich said.” We had some mishaps there in the second half, but when we needed to get the stops, we still did.
“Give great credit to Drexel for their defense. That’s a tough team to score on. That’s what they do. They make every dribble tough, they make every pass tough, but at the same time, we were tougher than them.”
Behind graduate forward Kazembe Abif, Drexel started 12-for-23 in the second half, but missed nine of its final 12 shots. Abif rebounded from a two-point, 1-for-7 first half to make 6 of 9 shots in the second half and finish as Drexel’s leading scorer, with 16 points.
Although Green went scoreless until he got his first points on a layup with 5:44 left in the first half, Hofstra earlier scored the first six points and built a 13-5 lead.
“The old me started coming back for a little while,” Green admitted. “After I missed a couple shots, I would get mad at myself, but I just tried to stay focused and make sure the next one would go in.”
Drexel got within two points on as many occasions later in the half, but Green’s only 3-pointer (in four attempts), followed by a Bernardi layup, capped a 12-2 run that gave the Pride the game’s largest lead, at 34-22, before sophomore guard Sammy Mojica (13 points on 5-for-17 shooting) beat the first-half buzzer with a layup.
Starting the second half on a 14-4 spurt, the Dragons tied the game, 38-38, less than six minutes after intermission.
Hofstra scored the next five points, on a 3-point play by Bernardi and a layup from graduate forward and Princeton transfer Denton Koon (five points, game-high 13 rebounds), but Drexel responded with a 16-9 run, to lead, 54-52, on a layup by Abif with 6:22 left.
Gustys (who is averaging 10.9 points and 9.5 rebounds this season) tied the game on Hofstra’s next trip, as part of his third straight double-double and seventh for the season.
Pointing to Gustys, seated immediately to his right at the postgame press conference, Mihalich said, “This guy right here sets the tone for toughness. There’s no one tougher than this guy right here. Another double-double. He’s like a walking double-double. Rok’s toughness is contagious for us… we just kind of follow his lead on that one.”
Sure enough, after a time out following Gustys’ game-tying bucket, the Pride picked up its defensive intensity as Green took control at the other end of the floor.
A Mojica tip-in gave the Dragons their final lead, 56-54, with 5:25 remaining, but Green scored on each of Hofstra’s next five possessions.
He converted a layup eight seconds after Mojica’s basket and 41 seconds later, made one of two free throws to put the Pride ahead to stay, 57-56.
Green then added a jumper (right after he had a steal), a layup and a tough, hanging jumper in the paint, plus a free throw, for 3-point play, to end his scoring run with Hofstra in front, 64-56, with 3:06 to play.
“When we had to make plays down the stretch, we made plays,” Mihalich said. “When you’ve got someone like (uniform) No. 1 (Green) on our team, you figure out a way.”
With the Pride up by six points, Gustys scored on a layup off of an assist by Green, before a pair of Green free throws made it a 10-point game in the final minute.
Green said, “The first thing I think about is to come get the ball and maybe call out Rok to set a ball screen, just try to work off that, and try to get him an easy layup or try to get somebody open for a 3.”
On the prospect of scoring 2,000 career points himself, the 6-foot-9, 259-pound, Gustys cracked, “That would be pretty tough for a big man. I wish,” while adding on a more serious note, “I just tried to do my job and Juan’ya’s always finding me open, so I’m glad I have Juan’ya on my team… Juan’ya’s the first man we go to. He’s the best leader for us… we believe in him.”
Hofstra will need that leadership again very soon, as the Pride, on Saturday afternoon, will host James Madison (picked to finished second in the CAA this season), which after sweeping Hofstra in the regular season last year, before losing to the Pride in last season’s CAA tournament quarterfinals, will be coming off of a convincing win at defending CAA tournament champion Northeastern, while sitting in a four-way tie for third place, one game behind Hofstra and William & Mary.
“We just try to take it one game at a time,” Green said. “They (JMU) bring five starters back, I think, so we know they’re going to be tough. They play physical, they play hard.”
At least for a short while, however, Green could enjoy his historic accomplishment. Although Mihalich didn’t want him to think about it for too long.
Asked how aware he was of closing in on becoming the third active men’s Division I player with 2,000 points and that he is now 128 additional points from becoming only the fourth player in men’s Division I history to score at least 1,000 points for two different schools, Green said, “[Reaching 2,000 points was] the only [personal milestone] I knew about… so I don’t really think about that stuff too much.”
Before Green could continue, Mihalich quickly interrupted his star by making an amusing “shushing” signal to a reporter with his right index finger over his lips, which drew a laugh from Green before adding, “I was kidding him… the man needed 22 to get to that 2,000 mark, and I said ‘The worst thing in the world would be to have like 15 tonight, and he’d need seven on Saturday,’ and he’d can’t help but think about it. So that’s over and he can start thinking about 3,000 now.
“The other milestone he’s talking about is trying to get another win.”
Green wouldn’t have it any other way.