HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — It was the first meeting of the season between the teams picked to finish in the top two spots of the Colonial Athletic Association this year. Appropriately, it went down to the end, in overtime.
But that was mainly because of Lithuanian sophomore center Rokas Gustys. The rest of the Hofstra Pride failed to show up.
As a result, with the Pride (12-6, 4-2 CAA) having a chance to seize sole possession of first place one-third of the way through the CAA schedule, the James Madison Dukes (14-5, 4-2 CAA) remained undefeated on the road this season while creating a six-way for first place in the CAA with an 86-82 victory at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
“Two real good teams, great battle, very competitive, at the end of the year, two of a whole bunch of teams that are probably gonna be playing for that first place seed,” said head coach Joe Mihalich (307-246 overall, including 42-43 with the Pride), who after coaching for 15 years at Niagara, missed a chance to have a winning record for the first time as Hofstra’s head coach.
“It kind of stings, obviously,” Mihalich added. “You get the win, you’re in first place by yourself. But that didn’t happen, so we’ve got to deal with that, we’ve got to own that… but even if we had won the game, it’s gonna be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s gonna be a war every night… in this league.”
Something had to give, as JMU entered the game 5-0 on the road and the best CAA team at defending the 3-point shot (in league play), while Hofstra came in 6-0 at home and dangerous from behind the arc. Ultimately it was the Pride giving in after a tough fight led by Gustys.
Posting the first 20-20 game by a Hofstra player in nearly 34 years (since David Taylor, in a 56-49 win over Wagner on January 27, 1982) and the first 20-rebound game by a Hofstra player in almost 13 years (since Kenny Adeleke had 20 boards against North Carolina-Wilmington on February 15, 2003), Gustys made nine of 10 shots from the floor while recorded career highs of 25 points and 20 rebounds (six offensive).
“I think he’s got some great confidence now,” Mihalich said of Gustys, crediting senior guard, preseason Player of the Year pick, Juan’ya Green (17 points, game-high nine assists) for some of Gustys’ good play this season.
“He’s got the best point guard in the country to carry him through and a great surrounding cast and he’s learned his role,” Mihalich said. “He’s got a big role… we don’t have a chance to win if Rokas is not playing the way he’s playing. He stays within himself. I know that sounds like coach talk, but he doesn’t try to do anything he can’t do. He’s going after every rebound, he sets great screens, he scores around the basket and he keeps his eyes and hands, and feet ready when Juan’ya Green has the ball.”
While Gustys was great, the rest of the Pride shot just 27.7 percent (18-for-65), including just 22.9 percent (8-for-35) from 3-point range (just under the 22 percent the Dukes have allowed from that distance in CAA play this season).
Doing all of his damage in the paint, Gustys was humble in discussing the way he carried Hofstra on his broad, 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame.
“I’ve [been gaining] a lot of confidence throughout the season, and all my teammates really trust me and really believe in me down low, in the post,” Gustys said. “So I’m glad I have great teammates around me.”
While Gustys was proud to have one of the best games in school history, he’d have traded it for a win.
“It was good to have those numbers, but I’d rather have 10 points and 10 rebounds, and have us win the game,” he said. “So I’m that type of person.”
Gustys’ performance left him double-double averages (11.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) for the season and eight double-doubles for the year, with half of those coming in Hofstra’s past four games.
Yet if there’s one shortcoming in Gustys’ game, it’s clearly evident in his poor free throw shooting, where his teammates were 13-for-14, while he made only half of the same number of attempts to actually raise his season average to a dismal 39.8 percent (33-for-83).
Still, Gustys held JMU off before fouling out with 2:34 left by making two free throws to tie the game on a pair of free throws 1:04 earlier.
Head coach Joe Mihalich was thoroughly impressed with Gustys’ effort.
“Incredible, incredible,” Mihalich said. “I mean, there’s not a better rebounder in America… he made two big foul shots at a really crucial time… it’s just a shame that we couldn’t get that win so we could really enjoy that. Just an incredible performance by him.”
Not so much for Mihalich’s other starters, all of whom relied too much on the 3-point shot, while combining to go just 6-for-32 (18.8 percent) from long range.
Three-point specialist, junior guard Brian Bernardi (12 points), missed eight of his 10 triples, while the Pride’s two leading scorers — CAA preseason Player of the Year pick, senior guard Juan’ya Green (17 points, game-high nine assists) and preseason All-CAA First Team choice, senior guard Ameen Tanksley (11 points) — made only 3 treys in a combined 18 attempts (Tanksley was 1-for-9, while Green went 2-for-8).
Tanksley finished 4-for-20 overall, making him just 7-for-33 over his past two games. His 3-for-13 shooting in the first half matched what he shot in a win over Drexel in Hofstra’s prior game on Thursday night.
But that didn’t deter Mihalich.
“The last thing we’re going to do is not take those shots… because we can shoot,” he said.
“No concern (about Tanksley), he’ll shoot his way out of it. He’s as tough as they come. He’s done this before and I know that he’ll be in that gym getting shots up… not at all. Brian didn’t make shots he normally makes [either].
“The only time I would get upset with these guys is when they’d have a good shot and they didn’t take it.”
Jumping on the Pride early, the Dukes scored five straight points to lead, 7-2, less than a minute into the game. But Hofstra scored five consecutive points of its own, on a layup by Gustys and a 3-pointer by Green, to pull within 9-7.
Later, junior guard Shakir Brown (who scored a team-high 22 points while grabbing 11 rebounds) capped a 15-4 run to give JMU the game’s biggest lead, 28-17, with 7:43 left in the opening half.
However, seven points from Gustys keyed a 19-8 Hofstra answer (which ended on a Gustys layup) that tied the game at 36-apeice before a layup with 1:03 left in the half gave the Dukes a 38-36 halftime edge.
Starting the second half on an 11-5 run, the Pride moved ahead, 47-43, only to see JMU score the next six points and go back up, 49-47.
More than seven minutes later, a pair of free throws and a layup by Green extended a slim Hofstra lead to 61-56, with 5:49 remaining in regulation, and two foul shots from Tanksley gave the Pride its largest advantage, 65-59, with 4:50 left in the second half.
But a consecutive jumpers from Brown ended an 11-3 spurt that gave the Dukes a 70-68 lead with 2:06 left in the half.
Gustys kept Hofstra alive, though, with a game-tying layup 19 seconds later, and another, which kept the Pride within 74-73 with 30.5 seconds left in regulation (which gave him 21 points and 20 rebounds).
After senior guard Ron Curry (14 points, eight assists) made only one of two free throws, Green drove the lane and missed. But graduate forward Denton Koon (11 points) tipped in the follow to tie the game at 75-all, with 7.4 seconds to play in regulation.
Curry had a chance to win the game on the next trip, but missed a 3-pointer before the buzzer.
Haitian junior forward Yohanny Dalembert (16 points, team-high 16 rebounds) scored the first points of overtime with an uncontested drive down the lane and a forceful left-handed dunk, but Gustys surprisingly made two free throws to tie the game again, before making a layup to put Hofstra ahead, 79-77, with 2:48 left to play.
With a chance to turn that bucket into a 3-point play, Gustys missed an ensuing free throw and 14 seconds later, fouled Curry on his tying layup.
Curry’s missed free throw kept the game tied, but with Gustys on the bench, the Pride didn’t score again until a harmless 3-pointer in the final seconds by freshman guard Desure Buie (six points).
A Dalembert layup with 1:46 left put JMU up for good, 81-79, and free throws (two by Curry and one from Dalembert) in the final 25 seconds extended the margin to 84-79.
Down by two, with 27.4 seconds left and 21 on the shot clock, the Pride, coming out of a time out, could have elected to simply try and get a stop and have the ball with perhaps enough time to tie or win the game, but Hofstra fouled Curry right away, with 25 ticks left.
“We needed to stretch the game out,” Mihalich reasoned. “First of all, if they score, they game’s over. If you [get a] stop, you’ve got [about] seven seconds to score. I’d rather stretch it out a little bit.”
Buie drained a 3-pointer from the right corner, to pull Hofstra to within 84-82, with 4.7 seconds remaining, and seemed to have fouled immediately on the inbounds pass. But a foul wasn’t called until Bernardi committed one with 0.8 seconds to go, after which the Dukes scored the final points on a couple of free throws.
Afterwards, Green said, “I feel like we could have done a better job on offense and defense. We’ve got to make our adjustments. I think we’ll be better next time… making better decisions with the ball, not turning the ball over, and just getting defensive stops.”
Gustys added, “We have to learn from this game and just get ready for next week because [we are] going to [have] tough opponents.”
Those include two of the teams among the first-place logjam, last year’s CAA tournament finalists, Northeastern (on the road on Thursday) and a home date with William & Mary two days later.
“If we’re going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, we’ll going to get banged on Thursday and Saturday,” Mihalich said. “So we’ve got two great games coming up. We’ve got to buckle up. It’s going to be a tough ride, a bumpy ride every time we play.”
It’s gonna come down to three days in March (during the CAA tournament) and we’ve got to keep getting better. We didn’t shoot the ball. If there’s anything we can do, we can shoot. We had some shots we normally make, but we didn’t make them [today].”
Yet tomorrow is another day, and perhaps with the emergence of Gustys in the post, the Pride won’t have to rely on making those outside shots quite as much anymore.