BALTIMORE — The Colonial Athletic Association tournament at Royal Farms Arena continued with a long day of quarterfinal action on Saturday that produced for the first time in CAA history, the same semifinal matchups as the year before, with top-seeded Hofstra, fifth-seeded William & Mary, second-seeded North-Carolina-Wilmington and sixth-seeded Northeastern advancing. Here’s how the four teams that are still standing got there:
GREEN HELPS OUT FOUL-PLAGUED BIGS AS HOFSTRA GETS BY DREXEL
The Hofstra’s Pride first visit to the CAA tournament as the league’s top seed began like a business trip on Saturday afternoon.
As such, the Pride (23-8, 15-4 CAA) very matter-of-factly did exactly what it needed to in giving the ninth-seeded, upset-minded Drexel Dragons (6-25, 4-16 CAA) little hope during an 80-67 CAA quarterfinal victory at the Royal Farms Arena.
Despite Hofstra’s two centers — First Team All-CAA selection Rokas Gustys (16 points, 11 rebounds in 20 minutes) and backup center Andre Walker (three points, three rebounds and two blocks in 18 minutes) — each picking up their fourth fouls by the time 9:50 was left in the game, the Pride made sure that the Dragons never led while building a 20-point advantage itself, before comfortably putting Drexel away to reach the CAA semifinals for a second straight year.
CAA Player of the Year, senior guard Juan’ya Green, scored a game-high 22 points, while adding six rebounds and four assists, as Hofstra took 22 more free throws (31-9) and made 15 more (21-6) than the Dragons, who got no closer than 59-50, with 9:40 left, 10 seconds after Gustys matched Walker with his fourth personal foul.
Junior guard Brian Bernardi also had 14 points (while making half of his eight 3-point attempts) and senior forward Ameen Tanksley added 13 points.
Junior forward Rodney Williams (team highs of 20 points and 11 rebounds) and senior forward Kazembe Abif (18 points, eight rebounds) did all they could to keep the Drexel in the game, but Hofstra’s business-like approach and focus on winning its seventh straight game, while taking the next step toward backing up its pick as preseason CAA favorites, prevented the Dragons (which edged eight-seeded Elon by a point, the night before) from making a meaningful comeback.
“They won the league [during the regular season] because they got the guy,” Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint said of Green. “He knows when to step it up. Down the stretch this year, they won some really close games and he made plays for them. That’s what you need in a tournament situation. And also, Tanksley, (graduate forward) Koon, Bernardi, Gustys, those guys, they play off of [Green]… they’ve got that person that can make the big plays for them. He makes their other guys better.”
Flint’s counterpart, head coach Joe Mihalich, said, “In some respects, that first game’s the toughest. Juan’ya and I were talking about that coming out of the locker room. You’ve just got to get that first one under your belt. I thought our veterans, our seniors, handled it well.
“Juan’ya looked nice and loose out there. He relaxed everybody. If anybody had some jitters, I couldn’t tell.”
Yet the early foul trouble for Gustys and Walker did unnerve Mihalich to a degree.
“I was looking down at (big man) Hunter Sabety, who’s not allowed to play because he’s sitting out this year,” Mihalich joked (as Gustys reacted with a laugh). “We were able to nurse it along and change up some things we did in our zones [defensively].”
Gustys later credited his teammates for their help.
“Andre Walker came in and stepped up well,” he said. “Denton Koon got 10 rebounds (and eight points). They filled my spot. That’s what a team is for.”
Reflecting on reaching the semifinals for the second time in as many years since he and Tanksley both followed Mihalich from Niagara to Hofstra, Green said, “I’m just glad to be back here, and being the hottest team in the league right now coming into the tournament is great. We have a lot of confidence, and we’ve just got to make sure we get the job done.”
One of the ways Hofstra has been doing that lately is by stepping up its defense.
“Over these last [several] games, we’ve been communicating more and knowing our game plans going into the games, so if we keep communicating with each other and know what we have to do on defense, we’ll win tomorrow,” Green said.
But first, it was all about taking care of business.
Already halfway to his 20th double-double of the season (with a quick five points and five rebounds) after just 3:39, Gustys helped to stake the Pride to a 10-4 lead before Drexel closed to within 13-11.
But a 26-12 spurt pushed Hofstra ahead, 39-23, before the Pride settled for a 42-29 halftime advantage.
Hofstra (which beat Drexel by six and eight points, respectively, in two prior meetings this season) scored the first seven points of the second half, but the Dragons answered with the next seven to start a 21-10 run that briefly got them back in the game.
However, with Drexel later down by 13 points, consecutive 3s from Tanskely and Green swelled the lead to 73-54, with 5:12 to play. The Pride maintained at least a 14-point lead until Abif made the final basket with 15 seconds left.
In a reversal of last season, Hofstra will next face fifth-seeded William & Mary — whose quarterfinal win over fourth-seeded James Madison allows the CAA to claim half of its 10-team conference as 20-game winners — in the semifinals on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (last year, William & Mary was the top seed, with Hofstra the five seed in the same round, when the Pride lost a heartbreaking, double overtime game on a 3-pointer with a half-second left).
“This league is the ninth-best league in the country, and not enough people know that,” Mihalich said. “More people should know that. We’ve got a lot to be proud of, all 10 coaches, all 10 A.D.’s, all 10 presidents, we’ve got a lot to be proud of, and I just wished more people realized it.”
Prior to knowing the outcome of the William & Mary-JMU contest, Mihalich said, “[I have] no preference at all (on the next opponent). No matter who we play, it’s going to be a really good team, a really tough team, and if we’re not ready to go, it’s going to be a long day.”
The Pride swept the Tribe during the regular season, turning a two-point, early second-half deficit into a 91-63 home win with a game-closing 45-15 blitz on Jan. 24, before winning a hard-fought, 86-80 decision at William & Mary 18 days later.
Although it will a big revenge game for the way Hofstra’s tournament ended last year, the focus remains businesslike for the Pride, which isn’t concerned with anything else but its own level of play.
“The most important team in the tournament to us,” Mihalich said, “is us.”
RUN & HIDE: WILLIAM & MARY HANGS ON AFTER HUGE FIRST-HALF SPURT
The fourth-seeded James Madison Dukes jumped on the William & Mary Tribe, 6-1, after the first four minutes in the second CAA quarterfinal matchup on Saturday. But it was the rest of the half the half the Dukes (21-11, 11-8) would like to forget, as the Tribe (20-10, 12-7 CAA) scored the next 20 points — while JMU missed 12 straight shots and went scoreless for nearly 11 minutes — to trigger a game-turning 30-6 run that put William & Mary up by 19 points, before a JMU 3-pointer sent the teams to halftime with the Tribe ahead, 31-15.
When the Dukes — who shot 25.9 percent (7-for-27, including 1-for-12 from 3-point range) in the opening half — finally got their offense going with 49 second-half points, it was their defense that failed them, as William & Mary nearly matched that amount with 48 points after the break.
Although JMU used a 24-13 spurt to whittle a 16-point deficit to as little as 69-64, with 1:36 left, the Dukes’ rally was too little, too late, with the Tribe scoring the final 10 points to pull away for a 79-64 quarterfinal victory, forcing its semifinal rematch against Hofstra.
First Team All-CAA selection, senior guard Ron Curry, scored 18 of his team-high 20 points and sophomore guard Joey McLean added nine of his 13 points in the second half for JMU, but another First Team All-CAA pick, junior forward Omar Prewitt, scored 18 of his game-high 25 points as reserve sophomore guard Connor Burchfield added all 11 of his points after halftime for William & Mary, which overall, shot 51 percent (25-for-49), to JMU’s 35.5 percent (22-for-62).
The Tribe also attempted nine more free throws (25-16) and made a dozen more (23-11) to quell the Dukes’ comeback attempt.
“It’s basketball,” Prewitt said. “Every team’s going to make a run at some point. We just had to stay with what we were doing and execute like we were.”
Although he was a big factor in William & Mary’s semifinal win last season, Prewitt wasn’t thinking too much about that game in relation to what’s ahead next.
“We have a new team, [Hofstra] has a new team,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun game, to go out there and play them tomorrow. They’re a very good team… so we’re going to go back to the drawing board, and hopefully we can get a win tomorrow.”
ESCAPE ARTISTS: UNCW ERASES 16-POINT HOLE, BARELY SURVIVES
In a tale of two different halves, the second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks turned the 3-ball around for both themselves and for the seventh-seeded Charleston Cougars, while rallying from a late first-half, 16-point deficit, to take a six-point lead just seven minutes later, and eventually escape with a 66-64 quarterfinal win, after a runner in the lane by CAA Rookie of the Year and Third Team All-CAA selection, freshman forward Jarrell Brantley (15 points, eight rebounds), clanged off the back iron at the final buzzer.
Trailing, 5-1, Charleston (17-14, 9-11 CAA) — which ousted Delaware by four points in a first-round game the night before — went on a 36-16 run to lead, 37-21, with 2:20 left in the half before settling for a 40-27 edge at intermission.
At that point the Cougars were 7-for-9 from 3-point range while the Seahawks (23-7, 15-4 CAA) — the league’s regular season co-champions along with Hofstra — had missed all six of their shots from behind the arc.
Those trends reversed after halftime, as UNCW made its next six treys — half of those, by junior guard Chris Flemmings (who scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half) — within the first 4:41 of the second half, to lead, 49-43, with 15:19 left.
The Seahawks were 7-for-12 from 3-point range, while Charleston missed all five its shots from that distance in the second half.
The Cougars responded to UNCW’s 22-1 spurt spanning each half with a 15-7 run, to go up, 53-50, with 10:48 remaining, but after the score was tied for an eighth and final time, at 57-57, with 6:39 left, UNCW scored the next four points and led the rest of the way, even though Charleston got as close as 65-64 on a Brantley layup with 47 seconds left.
Another Third Team All-CAA choice, sophomore guard Cameron Johnson, matched a career-high to lead all scorers with 21 points for the Cougars, but reserve sophomore forward Marcus Bryan scored 14 of his career-high 16 points in the first half to keep the Seahawks within striking distance before they picked things up after halftime.
Offering an explanation for his team’s slow start, CAA Coach of the Year Kevin Keatts said, “When you’re the team to get the [first-round] bye, you haven’t played yet. So the other teams [who won the night before] are able to get their early jitters out, and their second game, they’re ready to play… and our game plan going in was to have player movement and ball movement, and we didn’t [have that in the first half]… I didn’t think we were nervous, I just thought we were sluggish coming out at the beginning.
“Once we started scoring, that changed a lot of different things, because in the second half, we made some baskets and we were able to get into our press. When we’re a pressing team, we’re a much better team… because we’re a pressing team, we never feel like we’re out of the game.”
NORTHEASTERN NOT DONE YET: DEFENDING TOURNEY CHAMPS UPSET TOWSON
Through a series of veiled postgame comments, Towson Tigers head coach Pat Skerry revealed his disbelief over his team being unable to draw foul calls.
Ultimately, the 18 more attempts (26-8) and 14 more makes (17-3) for the sixth-seeded, defending CAA tournament champion Northeastern Huskies (18-14, 10-9 CAA) proved to be the difference in Towson’s 71-60 quarterfinal loss, as the Huskies, after trailing 32-29 at halftime, rode 61.9 percent (13-for-21) second-half shooting while limiting the Tigers to just 35.5 percent (11-for-31) shooting after the break.
After combining for only eight points in the first half, Second Team All-CAA selection, senior forward Quincy Ford (game-high 20 points, seven rebounds), and conference scoring leader and First Team All-CAA pick, senior guard David Walker (18 points, six assists), totaled 30 of their team’s second-half points after intermission to rally the Huskies.
A Ford layup gave Northeastern as many second-half points as the Huskies had in the first half, and their biggest lead, at 58-46, with 7:27 remaining.
Towson cut that margin in half, 64-58, on a 3-pointer by Third Team All-CAA choice, sophomore forward Mike Morsell (16 points), with 1:58 left, but the Tigers could get no closer.
After the loss, Skerry commented on both his team’s inability to stop Northeastern’s offense and more sarcastically, on the 12 fouls called on Northeastern compared to the 23 whistled on Towson.
“We made too many errors defensively,” Skerry said, before adding, “We obviously couldn’t get to the foul line for whatever reason.”
Sitting next to Second Team All-CAA selection, junior forward William Adala Moto (who failed to get to the free throw line despite scoring a team-high 18 points and grabbing a game-best 12 rebounds), Skerry said, “I think William is going to have to go to the hospital. He got hit with everything.”
Turning to Moto, Skerry sardonically asked his big man, “Are you alright?”
Skerry then continued, “It’s the first game [in which] he never got a free throw attempt. We’re fifth (actually 12th) in the country in free throw attempts. They played some zone, but I’d say half the year, we’ve seen zone and we still got to the foul line. We just couldn’t get to the foul line tonight. We’ll forever wonder why.”
Asked about the tournament moving to Charleston next year after a three-year run in Baltimore, Skerry said, “I love living in Baltimore. I’ll be happy to see the tournament go to Charleston though. We’ve had some tough luck here.”
The mood was much different for Northeastern head coach Bill Coen, who said, “When you have two veteran leaders like David Walker and Quincy Ford, their presence on the court makes it so much easier for the other players to handle pressure situations and to really perform at a high level… both of [those] guys did a tremendous job.”
Returning to the semifinal game after winning its only CAA tournament title as a three seed last year, Coen added, “We have a core group of players that lived through it and experienced it, and it’s an experience like none other… to have an opportunity to play in March, in meaningful games, and get a chance to compete for a CAA championship, is just magical.
“We’re trying to enjoy the ride and stay in the moment and make sure we’re focused and ready to go, and give it our best effort. Last year’s experience was unbelievable. I know everybody in our locker room would like to relive it.”
Earlier in the season, it didn’t look like the Huskies would have that opportunity, after losing six straight games and eight of nine before most recently winning six of seven.
On the prior struggles, Ford said, “During that [losing] stretch, we really got closer together as a team [and] as a family, and the adversity did nothing but make us stronger. It’s such a great feeling that we’re clicking and things are starting to get a lot better at the best time of the season, which is in March.”
Looking to defeat UNCW in the semifinals for a second straight year, Northeastern will tip off against the Seahawks 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Hofstra-William & Mary semifinal game on Sunday afternoon.