photo & video: www.gohofstra.com
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hofstra Pride head coach Joe Mihalich warned his team that a rematch with its conference rival, the Towson Tigers, would be a lot tougher the second time around. Yet he also believed his team had learned from letting past games get away late, and that in the end, he could count on the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year favorite, senior guard Juan’ya Green.
Mihalich was right all on three accounts, and as a result, the preseason pick to win the CAA still might have a good chance to win the conference regular season title, after all.
Green, who finished with game highs of 21 points and 10 assists, had full autonomy from Mihalich following a time out in the final moments. What he did with it was draw the Towson defense along the left wing before finding sophomore center Rokas Gustys (16 points, game-high 12 rebounds) for a layup with 2.7 seconds left, to lift Hofstra (19-8, 11-4 CAA) to a thrilling 84-82 win at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
It was a fitting ending for Gustys, who with his 16th double-double, set a CAA-era school high for a season in that category (dating back to the Pride’s first year in the league, in 2001-02).
Dictating the final play after junior guard Brian Bernardi (12 points) drew a charge on Cameroonian junior forward Arnaud William Adala Moto (who led five Towson double-figure scorers with 20 points) with 13.7 seconds remaining was never a consideration with Green at Mihalich’s disposal.
“The mindset was [to] give the ball to Juan’ya,” Mihalich said. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m not the dumbest either. He’s gonna have the ball and he might have a step-back move, he might shoot a 3, he might throw an incredible pass to Rok, he might make the shot himself.
“But when you have a great player, you stay out of his way and you let him make a great play, and that’s why he’s the Player of the Year, because when we really needed him to do it, he did it — and he’s done it all year long.”
Coupled with first-place North Carolina-Wilmington’s simultaneous loss at third-place William & Mary, the Pride’s victory trimmed second-place Hofstra’s deficit in the CAA standings in half, to just one game, with a trip to UNCW looming next week, while Towson (18-10, 9-6 CAA) remained in a two-way tie for fourth place with James Madison.
A well-contested 3-pointer by sophomore guard Byron Hawkins (12 points), after the Tigers’ final time out, hit the rim and bounced high above the hoop before falling away harmlessly at the final buzzer to end a tense, back-and-forth battle which featured 13 ties and 21 lead changes.
From a competitive standpoint, the game was pretty much the antithesis of the Pride’s most complete 40-miunte effort of the season, when Hofstra held a 30-point edge from behind the arc in going 12-for-24 to the Towson’s 2-for-14 from 3-point range, while outscoring the Tigers, 45-29, in each half of a 32-point drubbing on the road, on Jan, 2.
Mihalich divulged, “I told them before the game, ‘One of the toughest things to do is beat a team at their place and then beat them again when they come to you.’ I’m just so proud of our guys for playing like champions tonight.”
Noting how the second meeting with Towson this season might help Hofstra better attain its ultimate goal of winning the CAA tournament — in Baltimore (and securing an automatic NCAA tournament berth) during the first weekend in March — than the Pride’s much easier win against the Tigers last month, Mihalich added, “It’s getting near the end of February here, and if you want to be good in March, you’ve got to be good in February. That was a heck of a ballgame. Two teams just slugging it out, just slugging it out. Two really good teams, two teams that are going to be fighting for a championship down there in Baltimore. There’s probably… seven teams that can win this thing and [the Tigers are] certainly one of them.
“[Towson] played well and we still win the game, so I’m proud of our guys.
“The games [in Baltimore] are going to be like this [one tonight] down there. I hope they’re not [with] all the lead changes [like tonight]… it’s all going to be about those three days in March for all of us and this is the kind of game that gets you ready for it.”
Certainly, Towson provided more of a test in that regard than the previous time against Hofstra, as the Tigers scored five straight points to lead, 14-9, after 4½ minutes, and went up, 21-14, after the next 4½ minutes.
Five consecutive points by senior forward Ameen Tanskley — who received a post-game fist bump, pat on the back and smiles from Mihalich after Tanskley’s coach showed the team’s second-leading scorer his 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 7-of-8 from inside the arc, on the stat sheet — capped a 21-9 answer that moved Hofstra ahead, 35-30.
“I was just thinking about driving the ball a little more [and] being more aggressive,” Tanskley said.
Closing the half on a 13-8 spurt, the Tigers tied the game at 43-apeice by intermission. Although the Pride had surrendered the lead, it might have felt fortunate knowing it didn’t give up at least one more point before the break, with Towson’s perfect 17-0 record when leading at halftime this season.
After trailing 49-45 in opening moments of the second half, 3-pointers by Green and Bernardi later bookended an 8-2 run that gave Hofstra a short-lived 66-62 edge just before the midpoint of the second half, as Towson quickly scored the next five points to go back in front.
The Pride (which shot a season-best 56.9 percent; 33-for-58) seemingly took control when Green hit a straight-away 3-pointer and set Tanskley up for a trey from the same spot on the next trip, before a Tanskley layup and a Bernardi triple ended an 11-2 stretch to give Hofstra the game’s biggest lead, 79-71, with 4:21 to play.
But the Tigers fought back again, with the next nine points, to grab their final lead, 80-79, on a 3-point play from Adala Moto, with 1:44 left.
Green responded to that with his own And-1 only 20 seconds later, to move the Pride back on top, 82-80, before sophomore guard Mike Morsell (13 points) tied the game one last time, 82-82, on a pair of free throws with just under a minute remaining.
Tanksley was stripped under the basket on Hofstra’s next possession, but Adala Moto’s offensive foul against Bernardi set the stage for Green (who easily leads the CAA in assists and is fifth nationally in that category) and Gustys (who far and away leads the CAA in rebounding while being the nation’s fourth-leading rebounder) to keep the Pride from letting another winnable game get away in the final stages.
“I was just trying to get a mismatch… and probably take a shot, but I saw Rok open,” said Green, who compared to the beginning of the season, now has a lot more late-game situation faith in his big man, with Gustys’ tremendous emergence over the past several weeks.
“He’s been playing way better, making layups and even making his free throws more, so we look to go to him,” Green said of Gustys, who made all eight of his shots from the floor while raising his CAA-leading field goal percentage to 65.1 percent, including 69.4 percent in league play.
With only four regular season games left, the rest of the conference might have been chasing Hofstra if not for the Pride coughing up late leads and losing in excruciating ways, twice to James Madison in overtime and by three points at home to UNCW, after leading by 20.
The way Mihalich sees it, those losses might prove beneficial for his squad in the long run.
“Those games got us ready for this game [tonight, against Towson],” Mihalich said. “What I’m proud of is that we did have two tough losses (versus UNCW and the next game, the second overtime loss to James Madison) that the average bunch of guys would let it get to them… but not these guys.
“They’ve got incredible spirit, incredible heart, character, all the things that may sound like coach talk, but they’re all the things that you need to have to be a championship team… it doesn’t guarantee you the championship, but we’ve got the qualities that it takes to win the championship.
“It’s not about having tough losses, it’s about how you deal with the tough losses, and who’s dealt better with it than these guys?
“We lose a tough one to Wilmington… we lose a tough one in overtime down at James Madison, then we go beat William & Mary [on the road], we beat Delaware (rallying from eight points down with less than nine minutes left, to win by 11) and then we beat a really good team tonight. It looks like we know how to deal with a tough loss.”
As one of the elder leaders on the team, Tanskley said his role has been to “try to help everybody keep enthused” and to make sure his teammates “stay calm and not break down at the end like we used to.”
So with its prior late-game troubles corrected for at least one game, does that mean Hofstra can now set its sights on catching UNCW and taking over first place at the end of the regular season as the Pride was voted to do during the preseason?
Well, not so fast.
First, there’s some more business to take care of at home (where Hofstra is 9-2 this season), on Sunday afternoon against defending CAA tournament champion Northeastern, which on a current three-game winning streak, like the Pride is presently on, has been trying to move up from its disappointing position in seventh place.
“We are thinking about Northeastern right now, nothing else,” Mihalich insisted. “That’s all we’re thinking about, because if we don’t think about Northeastern, we’ll have no chance of winning that game, because that’s one of the teams that can win the whole thing (in Baltimore) too… [it’s about keeping with] the idea of just ‘live in the moment’… if you start thinking about the [following] game [after the next game coming up], you’ll be in trouble.”
And now that Hofstra is once again back in serious contention for the CAA regular season crown and a top seed in Baltimore, being in trouble is definitely not a position to which the Pride wants to return.