HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The challenges — some of them, self-made — were there all season long for the Hofstra Pride to live up to preseason expectations as the best team in the Colonial Athletic Association.
But when Hofstra (22-8, 14-4 CAA) absolutely had to win, it did, with victories in its final six games, to claim a share of the CAA regular season title with North Carolina-Wilmington (22-7, 14-4 CAA).
The latest of those triumphs, a 72-63 Senior Day win over the Charleston Cougars (16-13, 8-10 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday, gave the Pride its first team crown of any kind since Hofstra joined the CAA in 2001-02, one year after it won consecutive league championships and earned a pair of NCAA tournament berths as America East Conference champions.
It also means the Pride will be the top overall seed in next week’s CAA tournament in Baltimore, after marking the second straight game that Hofstra, the preseason CAA favorite, had to successfully flip the script from earlier defeats which might have cost the Pride a shot at the CAA title.
Hofstra’s first conference loss this year came by a nearly identical score (72-61) at Charleston, on Jan. 7.
The Pride’s most recent home loss was exactly four weeks later, when Hofstra led UNCW, 38-18, late in the first half before losing, 70-67, on a 3-pointer in the final seconds — one game before losing the second of two overtime heartbreakers that Hofstra dropped to James Madison this season.
So what did the Pride do just before beating the Cougars, to set up its title-clinching chance? In another complete reversal of fortunes, Hofstra overcame a late first-half, 41-23 deficit to beat UNCW on the road, by an eerily similar 70-69 score.
Knowing that UNCW had already won its game at home earlier in the day (against Towson), the Pride basically just needed to win to secure the top seed in Baltimore.
When Northeastern also won at Drexel moments before Hofstra finished off Charleston, it rendered a potential RPI tiebreaker with UNCW (that would have still largely been in the Pride’s favor) unnecessary.
“It’s not the wins that have made us the best team in the conference, it’s the losses,” insisted head coach Joe Mihalich, who after averaging 17.6 wins person while reaching two NCAA tournaments and three NITs during a 15-year run at Niagara, took over a 7-win program (plagued by several player arrests) and won only 10 games during his first year at Hofstra before doubling that total last season.
“It’s how we’ve dealt with the losses, how we responded to the losses,” Mihalich continued. “And what did we do? We went 6-0.”
Hofstra’s resiliency was tested early while beating Charleston, who after trailing, 5-0, took a 15-12 lead and frustrated the Pride with some physical play.
“They guard every dribble,” Mihalich said of the Cougars. “They give up (a CAA-leading) [61.8] points per game. If you score 72 points on that team, you’re pretty good.
“That team that we just beat, the seventh-place team in this league? They can win the whole thing because of the way they play defense… sure, it would be an upset, but nobody would be incredibly shocked.”
Responding with a 9-4 run, Hofstra led for good, 21-19, on a layup with 4:38 left in the opening half by Lithuanian sophomore center Rokas Gustys (the Pride’s worst foul shooter, at 41.6 percent), who despite missing 9 of 12 free throws, still scored 13 points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds for his 19th double-double of the season.
Embodying the type of hustle that lifted his freshman season averages of 5.2 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per contest to 13.7 points and a CAA-leading 12.7 boards this year, Gustys barely beat the first-half buzzer with a follow tip-in, while falling down, to extend his team’s lead to 32-26 at halftime.
Starting the second half on a 14-6 spurt, Hofstra pushed its lead to 46-32, with 15:22 remaining. The Pride matched that margin on three more occasions over the next 5½ minutes and never allowed the Cougars to get closer than 68-61, with 2:48 left.
The victory, after posting consecutive 20-win seasons, was the second major step in Hofstra’s quick, three-year rebuild to prominence.
With the entire team appearing at a postgame press conference for the first time this season, athletic director Jeff Hathaway also spoke for an initial time in that this year in that setting, saying, “A little less than three years ago, Joe and I sat [at the Final Four] in Atlanta, Georgia, and we talked about this job, and we talked about the challenges, and we talked about the opportunities, and we talked about how we wanted to build it.”
Pointing to all of the players on the team, Hathaway added, “We wanted to build it with quality people… and quality basketball players, just like every one of these guys… and we’ve done it primarily because of Joe Mihalich, who is the guy who set the course for this program beginning three years ago.”
After placing his hand on Green’s shoulder and prematurely (yet probably correctly) declaring Green to be chosen as the conference Player of the Year, Hathaway also said Mihalich should be the CAA Coach of the Year.
The fact that Hathaway spoke at all was a pleasant surprise to Mihalich, who said, “It was really nice. The reason this place is a great place is because of our president [Stuart] Rabinowitz and Jeff Hathaway. I could have stayed at Niagara for the rest of my life and I’d have died a happy man, but when an opportunity comes up, the first question coaches ask is, ‘Is it a good job?’ Well here’s the answer to the question — who’s the president and who’s the A.D.? And if they’re good, it’s a good job.”
As for being the CAA Coach of the Year, as Hathaway said?
“All I care about is being [Hathaway’s] favorite coach,” Mihalich said. “I just want to be the favorite coach of Stuart Rabinowitz and Jeff Hathaway. I don’t need to be anybody else’s favorite coach.”
Finishing in first place should have more than accomplished that.
And to clinch at home, in front of the Pride’s largest and loudest crowd this season (3,478), during the final regular season game, was extra special for Mihalich and his four departing players this season, which includes a pair of 24-year-old Philadelphia seniors (born a day apart) who followed Mihalich to Niagara to become Hofstra’s two leading scorers — likely CAA Player of the Year, guard Juan’ya Green (who scored 17 points and handing out a game-high 10 assists) and forward Ameen Tanksley (10 points) — along with graduate forward and Princeton transfer, 23-year-old Denton Koon (10 points) and senior forward Malik Nichols, the Pride’s important sixth man, whose college career came to an abrupt and abbreviated end when he suffered a devastating knee injury during Hofstra’s blowout home win over William & Mary on Jan. 24.
“To be picked first and finish first… we had that bullseye on our back all year long,” Mihalich said. “We had Malik, thinking he’d be here all year.
“He’s done a heck of a job coaching these last couple of games,” Mihalich said of Nichols, who stood in the media room after the game, with crutches and a brace on his left leg.
Nichols said of his injury, “It was hard at first, but having these guys every day, behind me, it just helped me get past this.”
Thinking of when he posed at mid-court with his quartet of honorees and their framed jerseys before the game, Mihalich said, while pausing at time to fight back some tears, “We are really, really proud. A lot of emotions going on today. Senior Day’s and emotional day. You all don’t know what it’s like to stand at half court and watch these guys walk out of here.
“But to do what we did, as I said to the guys, ‘This is the best the league’s ever been.’ I asked the commissioner the other night, ‘What about when Old Dominion and VCU, and George Mason were in the league? What were you ranked then?’ He said, ‘The highest we ever got was 11th.’ So this conference is ranked ninth (nationally) this year.”
While it’s highly debatable as to whether this year’s CAA — just one more William & Mary win away from having half of the conference reach 20 wins — is better than in years past, when George Mason and VCU both reached the Final Four, or when Hofstra was snubbed for the NCAA tournament with an RPI less than half (30) of what it started the day with (61), the great chemistry between Mihalich, his coach staff and their players is undeniable.
“In the 38 years I’ve been doing this, I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed coming to practice, going to a meeting, watching video, going to a team meal more than being with these guys,” said the 59 year-old Mihalich. “I just can’t wait to be with these guys every day.
“There’s lots of teams I’ve loved. I’ve been to the NCAA tournament, climbed up ladders and all that stuff, but I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed a bunch of guys as much as I’ve enjoyed these guys.”
The feeling is mutual among Mihalich’s players, as evidenced by Green looking up and patting Mihalich on the back as he once again began to tear up while saying, “When you sign up to do this, you want to win championships, but you do want to be with great people.
“The only problem with being a college coach is you only get these guys for four years… it’s why we do this, to be with great people. These guys all think they learn from me, but the really good coaches learn from their players. They taught me how to be a better person and they make [me] a good coach. I’m a lucky guy, I really am, just to be with all these guys.”
Mihalich added, “This sounds like a cliché, but when you recruit players, you don’t recruit them for four years, you recruit them for 40. I’m gonna love these guys until the day I die… we trust each other, we believe in each other and we enjoy working together.”
Reflecting on coming within a semifinal, last-second, William & Mary 3-pointer last year of reaching the CAA finals as a five seed, Mihalich said, “We can’t wait to play [again]. We’re excited… that loss to William & Mary down there in double overtime, it’s going to make us better when we go down to Baltimore [next week].”
On returning there as the top seed, Mihalich added, “I believed we could do this, I really did. We were a double overtime, last-second shot, last year, away from being in the championship game… that’s why we came here, to win championships.”
Green admitted of the way last year’s semifinal game ended, “That one play has always stuck in my mind. I don’t want to feel that feeling anymore. That one shot just killed us. We always use it for motivation.”
And it should at least keep Hofstra from being overconfident.
“Whatever seed we are, we’ve got to come in every game, knowing every game’s going to be hard,” Green said.
Mihalich noted, “I said to the team when we went down to Wilmington, ‘This is exactly what we need. It’s going to be a championship atmosphere, it’s going to be a tough crowd, it’s going to be a hostile, nasty crowd, which they were. And so we had that kind of a game, and we won.”
That was one key lesson. Others were what Green has learned from both Mihalich and Speedy Claxton, Hofstra’s current assistant coach, who was a first-round NBA draft pick before winning an NBA title after being in Green’s shoes 15 years earlier, when he led Hofstra to its America East titles.
Exiting for a final time at home with 22.4 seconds left, Green — who with 216 assists this season, trails his mentor Claxton by just eight, and is only a dozen dimes shy of the all-time Hofstra single-season record — heard the Lion’s Den student section chant “First place!” for Green’s team and “M-V-P!” for himself.
“I’m just incredibly honored to hear them chant [that],” Green said. “It’s a lot of spirit. They stuck with us all year through the bad and good, so I’m just happy we got the win.”
Green then gave Mihalich a big hug as he left the floor.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Green said. “To see it [coming] to an end… once my last game comes, I’m going to miss everything about it, just coming to the office and talking to him… so I’m going to miss everything about him.”
As the elder, best player on the team, Green said, “What I’ve learned over the years is [to] just stay positive about things and not get down. As a leader, they all look at me, so if I’m down, somebody else will start getting down. So I just try to stay positive and stay in somebody’s ear and just keep them going.”
Some of that came from Claxton.
“I always try to pick Speedy’s mind a little bit and have him stay on me about things going into a game and [with] things that I need to do better,” Green said. “He’s a great coach and a great guy overall.”
Green said that perhaps the biggest thing Claxton taught him is, “Just having that drive. Being the leader, you’ve got to be in attack mode every time. You can’t get down about things if the game’s not going your way. You’ve got to pick it up, being the leader.”
When Green led, others certainly followed, since long before the start of Hofstra’s most successful regular season in 15 years.
“We put the work in, especially this [past] summer, said starting 22-year-old guard, Brian Bernardi (13 points), a 3-point specialist from nearby Staten Island, N.Y., who transferred from SMU. “To be able to do it like this, is amazing.”
Tanksley added, “We pushed each other. From the beginning, we had good leadership,” while later saying that winning the title “is feeling great.”
Green said, “We had a mindset of coming in and working hard, repeating everything in practice and working with each other to do better.”
But over the past two years, no one led the Pride’s huge turnaround more than Mihalich’s former Niagara duo.
And no one was prouder of them than their head coach who lured the pair of childhood friends to Hofstra.
“This is what they deserve, this is what we talked about when they decided to leave and they decided to come here,” Mihalich said, “is winning and becoming better players.”
Or in Green’s case, becoming the absolute best in the conference. As just about everyone else believes, even the normally modest Green expects to formally be named the CAA’s best player before the league tournament starts next week.
“I think so,” Green said on the thought of receiving the honor. “I think I had a pretty good year, where I could get the Player of the Year award. I would be pretty shocked [if I didn’t get it], but I’m here for the ring. That’s the biggest prize.”
While giving Hofstra — which after an opening round bye on Friday, will face either eight-seeded Elon or ninth-seeded Drexel at noon on Saturday — its first CAA title will forever be near and dear to the entire team and its coaching staff, it won’t have quite the same lasting legacy without finishing the job in Baltimore.
“It still means a lot,” Green said. “We [hadn’t] captured a title since 2001, so it still would be special for us, but if we [don’t win the tournament] it would be sad.”
Mihalich summed that up a bit earlier, saying, “Every single guy, when we recruit them, that’s what we talk about. We talk about being the best team in the league, and that’s what we are right now. We’ve got to go prove it again in the [CAA tournament].
“Juan’ya talked about [ultimately playing] his last game [for Hofstra]. This [was] his last game in this building. Hopefully there’s a lot of games in March for Juan’ya and Ameen, and all these guys.”
All photos courtesy of www.gohofstra.com