HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — One rebuilding milestone down, a couple more important ones left to secure.
With a 65-60 win over the pesky Northeastern Huskies at the Mack Sports Complex on Sunday afternoon, the Hofstra Pride clinched consecutive 20-wins seasons for the first time in nine seasons (when Hofstra was snubbed for the NCAA tournament after going 26-7 in 2005-06, before going 22-10 the following year).
But the preseason pick to win the Colonial Athletic Association this year isn’t satisfied yet, not without a possible CAA regular season championship, and most of all, a potential CAA tournament title in early March.
A little off the pace of achieving that first goal, beating the defending CAA tournament champion — but seventh-place — Huskies (15-14, 7-9 CAA) for a second time in as many meetings this season positioned the second-place Pride (20-8, 12-4 CAA) well for a chance to capture its first league title of any kind since joining the CAA in the 2001-02 season, ahead of a showdown at first-place North Carolina-Wilmington on Thursday night.
What plagued Hofstra the most earlier in the year — a trend not being able to close out a few winnable games in some tough conference losses — has reversed itself of late to make the Pride (with four straight wins) easily the hottest team in a league in which no other team currently has multiple consecutive wins heading into the final week of the regular season.
Hofstra (which went 20-14 last season) is not only winning more consistently, but is even finding new ways to rack up victories.
This time, the normally up tempo, high-scoring Pride, relied on solid defense (especially in the first half), the clutch, late scoring by graduate forward Denton Koon (game-high 19 points) and some unexpected good free throw shooting by Lithuanian sophomore forward Rokas Gustys (17 points, 16 rebounds) to grind out a tough win.
“We’ve won playing the other team’s style a couple times this year,” head coach Joe Mihalich (who won for a 50th time at Hofstra after collecting 265 wins at Niagara). It proves that… whatever the challenge is, I think we can find a way to win.”
Mihalich’s team (which only won 10 games in his first season at Hofstra, three years ago, one year after the Pride won just seven games amid off-court, former player turmoil and scandal under a prior regime) also showed it can depend on someone else other than its top four scorers when absolutely necessary.
Koon (Hofstra’s fifth-leading scorer, with 11.8 points per game), who made half of his 14 shots from the floor, led Hofstra in scoring for the first time since transferring from Princeton.
While his teammates missed 12 of 14 3-point attempts. Koon made half of his six tries from behind the arc.
He also scored nine of his team’s final 20 points, and with a pair of late buckets, was the only Pride player to make a field goal over the final 6:26 as the Hofstra (which shot just 21 of 60) finished with its worst shooting percentage (35 percent) during a win in 48 games (dating back to a victory over UNCW last season, on Jan, 3, 2015).
Coincidentally, it wasn’t the first time Koon helped save the Pride against the Huskies. Half of his 22 points produced 11 of Hofstra’s 13 points during the first of three overtime sessions in the Pride’s 96-92 win at Northeastern on Jan. 21.
“Maybe it’s the red (the Huskies’ primary team color, which dominated their uniforms on Sunday),” Koon joked. “I don’t know. Just opportunities… just be ready when your number’s called and the time comes for you [to step up].”
Turning toward Koon at the postgame press conference, Mihalich quipped, “Northeastern makes you play like (NBA sharpshooter) Kyle Korver.” Mihalich then addressed the media again, and said of Koon’s ability to rise to the occasion, “His 3 from the corner off of Juan’ya’s pass at the end was huge.”
That shot — a left corner trey off of a Green drive and kickout, was Hofstra’s final field goal — one which doubled a slim Pride lead to 60-54, with 1:12 remaining. It was the Pride’s first basket since a Koon layup with 4:37 left put Hofstra ahead, 53-49, immediately following a sequence that included a turnover at one end and then a steal at the other, and finally an assist to Koon, all from freshman reserve guard Desure Buie (two points on 0-for-5 shooting), who has had to shoulder more responsibility ever since key sixth man, senior forward Malik Nichols, was lost for the season due to a knee injury on Jan. 24.
Gustys, the Pride’s dominant inside presence and candidate for his first All-CAA First Team selection — but Hofstra’s worst free throw shooter (at just 42.6 percent) — calmly made two free throws to push the lead to eight points with just under a minute remaining. However, Northeastern’s trapping and pressing gave the Pride fits and nearly helped the Huskies tie the game.
Right after redshirt senior guard Caleb Donnelley (12 points) made a 3-pointer to trim the margin to five points, preseason Player of the Year favorite, senior guard Juan’ya Green (13 points, game-high eight assists), was trapped in the back right corner and threw the ball out of bounds off of Koon’s leg with 44.5 seconds left.
Senior guard David Walker (15 points), made a trey a dozen seconds later, to suddenly bring Northeastern to within 62-60.
But Hofstra, which had 19 more attempts at the foul line (23-4), where it held a decided 18-2 scoring edge, closed the scoring with three free throws over the final 20.8 seconds. The last of those made foul shots came from Gustys, who surprisingly made seven of his 11 made foul shots for the game, including five of his last six, over the final 9:23, as the Pride converted 11 of its last 12 free throws overall.
“A hard-fought win,” Mihalich said afterwards. “One of our battle cries before the game was, ‘Let’s not be foolish enough to think that because [Northeastern’s] in seventh place, they’re a seventh-place [type of] team. They were playing without their best player for four games. So we just played a team that can win the whole thing (in the CAA tournament). There’s six or seven teams that can win this whole thing and that’s one of them, that we just beat.
“It’s a great win for us… we [took care of business] today because our guys got guts, they’ve got character and they’ve got heart.”
And, after having three of its four conference losses come by virtue of a pair of overtime losses to James Madison and one to UNCW, by three points, after leading by 20, the Pride has also finally figured out how to close.
Referring specifically to consecutive losses to UNCW and at James Madison to start the month, Mihalich said, “I think losing those two games is why we’re winning these now. One of two things happens when you have those tough losses… you get tougher and you realize what you have to do to win those games… or you go the other way and yout start looking to all the people that are negative, and we don’t do that. We stay positive, we believe in ourselves, we knew we were good team, we knew we lost to good teams, but that’s why we’re winning now.”
Green and Koon concurred.
“I think we learned from… earlier in the season” Green said, while Koon added, “Definitely, earlier in the year, we had a problem with closing out games. Personally, just adjusting to my role with a new team… but that’s part of the season. You learn those things. [It’s not] the mistakes you make, but how you bounce back from mistakes in the final couple minutes. Like Coach said, adversity, losing a couple of tough games teaches you a lesson.”
Referencing the pair of 24-year-old Niagara transfers (born a day apart) who followed Mihalich to Hofstra — Green and senior forward Ameen Tanksley (12 points) — along with SMU transfer, 22-year-old junior guard Brian Bernardi (four points on just 1-of-9 shooting) and himself, Koon (who’ll turn 24 in May), kidded, “It helps that half our team’s approaching 30 years old. We’ve got some experience out there. Just playing a lot of games and being in those situations before definitely helps.”
Not only finishing better, but playing better defense earlier in the game pushed Hofstra to victory.
Northeastern was forced to work for its 38 points in the second half, when the Huskies shot just 40.5 percent (15-for-37).
And after allowing Northeastern to make four of its first six shots and lead, 11-7, after 4:01, the Pride held the Huskies to as many field goals on 20 shots, and the same 11 points over the final 15:59 of the opening half, to lead, 33-22, at halftime.
“I don’t think we did anything differently,” Mihalich said. “I thought maybe our slides just improved a little bit, but we didn’t make any [major] adjustments. Maybe just adjusted by being a little quicker, anticipating a little bit more with what we were doing.”
Walker, who entered the day as the CAA’s leading scorer, with 18.4 points per game, had just three points on 1-of-7 shooting, while missing five of six 3-pointers to that point. That performance rendered his 12 second-half points on 4-of-8 shooting insufficient as the Huskies tried to desperately fight back.
Redshirt senior forward Quincy Ford (7-for-20) matched Walker’s 15 points, and overcame a rough 3-for-11 start, with four straight second-half makes — to help whittle a game-high deficit of 35-22 in the first minute of the second half to 42-39, with 11:25 left — but he went scoreless thereafter while missing his final five shots.
Looking ahead to its next game, Hofstra which is two games up James Madison, William & Mary and Towson with only two regular season games left for each CAA team, and only one game behind UNCW, would like to avenge a game it probably should have won on Feb. 4.
“Just going in there with a lot of energy,” Green said, is the focus. “They beat us at our home, so we just wanna… beat them at their place and get payback.”
To that, Koon added, “I don’t think the mindset changes a lot. To have a chance at the [conference] lead, we’ve had to win games, so at this point, it’s preparing for a [later] situation where you have to win or go home (in the CAA tournament).
“I think we’re definitely in a good spot, and we’ve kind of learned over league play, and since we lost Malik, that was a big adjustment we had to make. But I think we’re playing well right now and have a little bit of a streak going, so hopefully we can keep it going.”
All photos: www.gohofstra.com, except for the final photo (Jon Wagner, New York Sports Day)