HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The unexpected emergence of Hofstra Pride sophomore center Rokas Gustys is creating a difficult dichotomy for head coach Joe Mihalich.
The “walking double-double” (as Mihalich described him) — and just about twice that of late — is also a double-edged sword because of his atrocious foul shooting.
On Thursday night, the mostly good — and bad — of Gustys (who shot 41.5 percent at the foul line last year and is even worse, at just 40.6 percent this season) almost cost Hofstra an important win.
But Mihalich also has Colonial Athletic Association preseason Player of the Year selection, senior guard Juan’ya Green (12 points, game-high six assists), who despite going off track after being named last week’s CAA Player of the Week, salvaged a rough shooting night by hitting a clutch jumper with 2.1 seconds left to give Hofstra (15-6, 7-2 CAA) a needlessly thrilling 66-64 win — after leading by 12 points late — over the Elon Phoenix (12-10, 3-6 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex.
A loss would have been especially disheartening for the Pride in a game it led for 38:29, that was tied for 46 seconds and which the Phoenix led for one second fewer than that.
While Gustys posted game-highs of 23 points and 19 rebounds, and was only one board shy of his third 20-20 performance in Hofstra’s past four games, he also missed seven of 10 free throws, including six of eight in the final 7:09.
As if Gustys’ foul line struggles were contagious, Green — the Pride’s second-most reliable foul shooter (79.5 percent) — missed half of his six free throw attempts as Hofstra shot just 11-for-25 from the charity stripe.
That kind of tone was set even before the opening tip, when junior guard Brian Bernardi (seven points, three assists) missed a rare type of free throw after Elon’s starters didn’t take the court fast enough.
Only two more free throws were taken in the first half — both by Hofstra — and those were missed as well, by freshman guard Desure Buie, who for the first time this season, was the Pride’s sixth man, a role vacated after valuable senior guard Malik Nichols was lost for the season to a knee injury in the Pride’s’s previous game last Saturday.
Trailing by as much as 13 points on five different occasions in the second half, the Phoenix took advantage of the Pride’s inability to close the game out at the foul line and grabbed its second and last lead on a dunk with 1:12 left by junior forward Christian Hairston (12 points, team-high nine rebounds).
Yet while Hofstra missed its free throws often, the Pride had a lot more opportunities than Elon, which was whistled for eight more fouls (20-12) than Hofstra, finished only 1-for-4 at the foul line and only had two free throw attempts until the final seconds.
Early on, the Phoenix had even more problems from the field, missing 15 of its first 16 shots, including all eight tries from 3-point range as the Pride scored the initial eight points and made six of its first nine shots to lead, 12-2 — behind six points from Gustys — before Elon finally got another basket with 11:47 left in the first half.
However, the Phoenix finished the half 10-for-20, and Hofstra just 6-for-18, as Elon used a 23-12 run to lead, 25-24, before the Pride took a 27-25 halftime lead on a 3-pointer by graduate forward Denton Koon (11 points, five assists).
By then, Gustys, with 10 points and 10 rebounds, had already recorded his seventh straight double-double and 11th of the season. And he continued to carry Hofstra, which scored the first 11 points of the second half — the first five by senior forward Ameen Tanksley (13 points, five rebounds, three assists), and the last four from Gustys — to push its lead to 38-25.
A few moments later, a brilliant no-look, behind-the-back feed from Green to Tanksley, for a 3-point play, elicited “M-V-P!” chants from Hofstra’s Lion’s Den student section while putting the Pride up, 41-28.
That margin stayed above seven points until late, and reached 13 again on another Koon 3-pointer with 6:34 to play.
However, as Hofstra left the door open at the foul line, Elon stormed through with a 17-3 spurt, to lead, 64-63.
After Hairston missed the front end of a one-and-one, Koon pulled down a rebound, was fouled and made the second of two free throws to tie the game with 35.6 seconds left.
Seconds later, Buie seemed to have cleanly stolen the ball near midcourt from junior guard Luke Eddy (10 points), but was called for a questionable foul.
“I thought Desure made a pretty good play,” Mihalich said later.
With a chance to put Elon back on top, Eddy missed the first of a one-and-one with 17.3 seconds to play and Gustys got his final rebound of the night.
Mihalich’s first inclination was to call a time out and set up a play, but Green signaled to his coach otherwise.
Green said, “I [saw that] he was [going] to call a time out, and I told him, ‘Just don’t do it, just let me make a play myself.’”
Mihalich chimed in, “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m not the dumbest guy in the world. It was an easy thing to do to listen to this guy (Green, sitting to Mihalich’s left). I listen to him a lot more than people think.”
Coming off his Hofstra-high of 30 points (in a 28-point win over William & Mary), the Niagara transfer missed his first five shots, was scoreless on four field goal attempts in the first half and hit just 3 of his first 13 shots.
But Green made the one that counted most, driving toward the paint on the left wing before losing his defender and draining a 19-foot, step-back, fade-away jumper for the game’s final points.
“I was thinking about trying to drive and get the foul at first, but I know they’ve got great help defense, so I just would up taking the shot,” Green said. “I was just glad we didn’t have to go three overtimes (when Green played 55 minutes during Hofstra’s triple overtime road win over Northeastern one week earlier).”
Mihalich added, “[Green] just wasn’t going to let us. It was just a classic, ‘Coach, just give me the ball and tell everybody to get out of my way. I’ll win the game for us.’ And that’s what stars do. That’s what the Player of the Year does, that’s what great players do, that’s what winners do and no one’s a winner more than Juan’ya Green.”
Praising the dangerous duo of Green (who leads Hofstra with 17.8 points and 6.9 assists per game) and Gustys (13.1 points and a CAA-leading 11 rebounds), Mihalich joked, “These two guys are getting to be like (NBA Hall of Fame ex-teammates) [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone.”
After coaching him at Niagara, Mihalich expected Green to be great. But Gustys’ sudden dominance has been a surprise.
“It’s not a mistake that this is happening,” Mihalich said of Gustys’ recent four-game run during which he has averaged 22.2 points and 17.5 rebounds per contest.
“I’m so proud of Rok because… he’s cleaning up everything and he’s grabbing every rebound, and making layups, and just playing really good basketball. He’s a go-to guy now. If you had asked me in the summertime, ‘Is Rok going to be one of our go-to’s,?’ I would have said, ‘I’m not sure.’ But now, man, we’re all sure.”
Gustys’ play has been so good that even when Elon’s late “hack-a-Rok” strategy helped the Phoenix rally and regain the lead, Mihalich was reluctant to pull Gustys for backup sophomore center Andre Walker, who only played five minutes, and along with Buie (17 minutes) and freshman guard Justin Wright-Foreman (two minutes), made up a Hofstra bench which failed to score.
“With Rok playing the way he’s playing, it’s tough to put Andre in there,” Mihalich said. “They play the same position, so you can’t play them together… but we’ve got to kind of force feed some [extra] minutes to Justin probably.”
That consideration is mainly because of Nichols’ absence, which Hofstra is rallying around.
“We try not to think of it as a negative,” Green said. “We just try to look at it as everybody’s just got to do a little bit more to help the team win, no matter what happens.”
Gustys added, “I agree. We’ve just got to play for each other and for ourselves. We’re just trying to be a better team and play for Malik while he’s [still] here.”
It’s not as if they have a choice, with a rotation that was already short before the Pride lost its best defender and a lot of toughness, along with the 5.2 points and 5.4 rebounds that Nichols provided in 18.1 minutes per game as Hofstra’s first player off the bench.
“It’s real simple,” Mihalich said. “We can’t get tired, we can’t foul and we can’t get hurt. We just need to get Desure Buie some more minutes and we tried to get Justin in there a little bit today and Andre Walker had a couple good plays in there.”
But it will still be Gustys and Green leading the way, and each credits the other with make each of them and their teammates better, as winning for Nichols serves as some extra inspiration.
“His energy has just been great, especially in practice,” Green said of Gustys. “He works hard in practice and gets everybody going, so we just try to feed off that as much as possible.”
Gustys says his great stretch of play comes from, “Just confidence and of course playing with Juan’ya Green just makes me play harder and better. I have a lot of good teammates around me. Malik Nichols was one of them and we just have to play for him now, every single time.”
Mihalich noted, “Like [Hofstra athletic director] Jeff Hathaway was saying, to get the first one without Malik Nichols was really important because he’s a big part of our team, and to get [this] one without him is great.”
It was also great to end the first half of the CAA schedule tied for first place with North Carolina-Wilmington only hours after the conference announced that beginning next year and for at least the two years to follow, the post-season league tournament will move 567 miles farther south, to North Charleston, SC, from its current Baltimore location, a sight which is far more centrally located to all teams in the CAA.
“It’s a nice place for tourists,” Mihalich said with a coy smile, implying that although North Charleston might offer some nice sights during the offseason, he may not be very happy at the thought of having to take significantly longer trips than the Pride currently takes, to Baltimore, in order to try to win CAA tournament titles.
For now, the focus remains on the more immediate tasks at hand, as Mihalich reflected on his team’s position at the midpoint of the CAA season, and on what lies ahead next, which continues with a road game Saturday at ninth-place Drexel, a team which Hofstra beat at home by only eight points two weeks ago.
“You’d give anything to be 7-2, that’s pretty good,” he said. “So we’re obviously proud of that but we’re also know we’ve got a lot work to do… we don’t even think about all the games at once. We really stick to that tunnel vision, that keep-the-blinders-on, that one-game-at-a-time [mentality], because if you do anything other than that, you’re going to lose. If we think about anything other than Drexel, we won’t beat Drexel.”