All photos by Jon Wagner, New York Sports Day
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — If the Hofstra Pride is ultimately going to live up to expectations as the Colonial Athletic Association’s preseason favorite and close the season as CAA champions for the first time in its 15 seasons since joining the league, it will first have to learn how to finish games on a more consistent basis.
Hofstra’s latest inability to end well on Thursday night — in a battle for sole possession of first place, against the visiting North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks (17-5, 9-2 CAA) — was the most disheartening example yet of the Pride (16-7, 8-3 CAA) ineffectively trying complete what it started.
For a second straight home game, Hofstra built a big early lead while forcing its opponent to start just 2-for-16 from the field. Yet for the second consecutive home game, the Pride also blew a comfortable second-half advantage.
The previous time at home, Hofstra built a 13-point lead on Elon before scoring the final three points over the last 35 seconds to eke out a two-point win on a late jumper from preseason CAA Player of the Year pick, senior guard Juan’ya Green.
Against UNCW, Green momentarily bailed the Pride out again, on a game-tying 3-pointer with 20 seconds left. But this time, the ending wasn’t so fortunate, as Hofstra eventually blew a 20-point lead before allowing a game-winning trey with 3.6 seconds left to redshirt junior Denzel Ingram — who was only 6-for-20 — in the Seahawks’ stunning 70-67 win at the Mack Sports Complex.
After holding UNCW to 4-of-26 (15.4 percent) shooting at the start, the Pride let the Seahawks shoot 25-for-46 (54.3 percent) thereafter.
Signs of a meltdown started early. Leading 20-6, and later, 38-18, Hofstra let UNCW score the final eight points over the last 2:05 of the opening half, to get within 38-26.
Head coach Joe Mihalich noted, “That 8-0 run they had to end the half, that got ‘em back in the game.”
Although the Pride pushed that margin to 46-28, Hofstra went ice cold — 4-for-22 (18.2 percent) — while being outscored 26-0 in the paint during the second half (after holding a 22-18 edge in the paint in the first half), and were doubled up, 42-21, over the final 17:42.
All of that prevented Hofstra from taking advantage of ten more fouls being whistled against UNCW (23) than on the Pride (13) and the home team’s 23 extra free throw attempts (35-12) and 16 more made free throws (24-8).
Hofstra’s first-half heroes also disappeared in the second half. Sophomore center Rokas Gustys — a strong All-CAA Team candidate, who entered the game with eight straight double-doubles — and junior guard Brian Bernardi, led the Pride with eight points each in the first half, but each scored just one point after intermission. After shooting 3-for-7 in the opening frame, Bernardi missed all five of his shots in the second half, as Gustys, who went 4-for-6 in the first half, took only one shot (and missed it) in the second stanza.
“We’re going to have to look at that,” Mihalich said. “We probably should have got the ball to [Gustys] more. He’s starting to draw such attention. It makes it really hard for him to get the ball. [The Seahawks] take you out of your offense. They did a good job with their defense… they take you out of rhythm and they make you work.”
Key mistakes weren’t limited to the floor for Hofstra.
As he often does, Mihalich needlessly burned a time out early in the second half (with 15:17 remaining) right after a Pride basket, with Hofstra holding a comfortable lead (49-34). That caused Mihalich to save his team’s final two time outs for much later. He thus never called another time out at any point while his team’s lead dissipated during the Seahawks’ big second-half run.
The result of the Pride’s most recent failures down the stretch resulted in Hofstra missing a chance to stamp itself as the team to beat with seven CAA regular season games left. Instead the Pride will have to make sure that the deflation of a loss in its biggest home game in a decade doesn’t snowball as Hofstra will next traverse a difficult three-game road trip that will wind its way through James Madison (one game behind the Pride), William & Mary (which sits it in a two-way tie for second-place with Hofstra) and last-place Delaware (a long-time rival of the Pride, which would love to use its home court to spoil the Pride’s chances at capturing a CAA regular season title).
What hurt the most for Hofstra was not only losing a first-place showdown on its home floor, but doing so while leading the game 89.3 percent of the time (35:18). The contest was tied for just 59 seconds and UNCW only led for 3:18.
“We’re smartin’ right now,” Mihalich admitted. “It stings. I thought in stretches, we played some of our best basketball, but there were some other stretches when we just didn’t play, obviously, as well as we had to.
“I’m not sure that we kept our composure the way we needed to down the stretch. We did it at Northeastern, in [a] triple overtime [win], we did it possession by possession the last few games, whether it was [in wins over] Elon or Drexel, but for whatever reason, we didn’t do that tonight. We have to own that, we have to deal with that, and make sure it motivates us.”
On whether it was UNCW aggressively taking the game from Hofstra or the Pride melting down, Mihalich said, “[It was] a little bit of both. [The Seahawks] made some plays down the stretch… but we lost our composure. That’s not like us, we don’t do that.”
Or do they, more than Mihalich believes?
While, as Mihalich alluded to, the Pride has closed well in some games, Hofstra has also had its fair share of disappointing late moments this season.
On the plus side, the Pride gutted out tough wins at Northeastern (fighting through three overtimes), and in its last road game, at Drexel — when Hofstra scored 15 of the final 20 points to win by eight. And the Pride did beat Elon (even though it nearly gave that game away) and the game prior, ended on a 48-17 run against William & Mary, to turn a 3-point, early second-half deficit into a 28-point victory. Prior to the win at Drexel, Hofstra also erased a late 3-point deficit and pulled out a hard-fought, four-point win at Elon.
However, in addition to losing what had seemed to be a sure win over UNCW, and almost having the same happen at home against Elon, the Pride allowed a tight game at Charleston to get away during an 11-point loss (with a meager 24-point second half output) and lost a six-point lead with 4:50 left in regulation, at home, in a frustrating, four-point, overtime loss to James Madison.
Still, after what was probably Hofstra’s most demoralizing defeat of the season, Mihalich is ready to return to the court right away.
“Can’t wait to play,” he said. “Let’s go play… the only way to get better is to go play another game.”
Playing, and doing so well, Hofstra has shown it can do frequently enough.
But if Pride is to win its initial regular season CAA title and more importantly, its first CAA tournament championship in Baltimore next month (along with securing an accompanying automatic NCAA berth), Hofstra will have to prove it can close the deal a lot more often than it has this season.