BALTIMORE — For the first time in Colonial Athletic Association history, the CAA semifinals repeated the same matchups as the year before. But this time, the conference finals will feature a pair of different team meeting for the title, with top-seeded Hofstra facing second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington. Here’s how they got there:
PAYBACK: HOFSTRA AVENGES LAST YEAR’S PAINFUL SEMIFINAL LOSS TO WILLIAM & MARY
The memory of last year’s stinging semifinal loss to William & Mary stayed with the Hofstra Pride for nearly a year.
Now they can breathe more easily, having avenged that defeat, while reaching the Colonial Athletic title game for only the second time since joining the conference in 2001-02, after pulling out a hard-fought, 70-67 win at Royal Farms Arena on Sunday afternoon.
And while top-seeded Hofstra (24-8, 16-4 CAA) exacted revenge for one painful loss, if the Pride can capture its first CAA tournament title, it will also pay back another team — second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington — for a loss in its only CAA title game appearance a decade ago.
“We thought about this game for 363 days,” head coach Joe Mihalich admitted. “It was a tough loss last year, a heartbreaking loss… in this profession, that’s what you sign up for, the great wins, the tough losses. So yeah, we thought about it for a year. We were glad to have a chance to make up for it.
“For the rest of my life, I’ll still think about that game [even though] we won today.
“We have a team that just refuses to lose. We should have lost that game [today]. We should have lost, but we didn’t.
“Early on in the game, I realized it was just going to be a repeat of last year. A little bit different pace, a lot more scoring last year, but I realized it was going to be the same thing. And I’ve said this about last year’s game — somebody’s going to have a heartbreaking loss and somebody’s going to have a fabulous win, and this year, it gets to be our turn [to win].
“As hard as tomorrow night’s going to be, you breathe that little bit of a sigh of relief, like, ‘Okay, we’re in the championship game. Let it all hang out and see what happens’ as opposed to, ‘Oh man, we didn’t even get to the championship game.’”
With fifth-seeded William & Mary (20-11, 12-8 CAA) doing a good job to contain CAA Player of the Year Juan’ya Green (14 points, five assists) and First Team All-CAA selection, sophomore center Rokas Gustys (season-lows of two points and only one shot attempt, despite a game-high 13 rebounds), Second Team All-CAA, senior forward Ameen Tanksley (game-high 23 points, seven rebounds) and junior guard Brian Bernardi (14 points on 4-for-10 shooting from 3-point range) kept Hofstra (24-8, 16-4 CAA) close enough for Green to characteristically make some winning plays late, when the Pride needed them most.
“That one shot playing in the back of our heads all season. We know it was a great game last year and it came up short on one possession, but today we got the win, and I’m just glad we can go to the championship.”
Tanksley added, “It’s just a blessing just to beat this team after they beat us last year. For us to pull this out [when] we [weren’t] playing our best, it feels real good.
“I’m excited for my team, the program, the stuff we overcame… it means a lot to not just me, but to everybody. I couldn’t sleep for like a week [last year]. You just see that shot go in, and you just constantly see it online, people just replaying it… and man, you’ve got to wait a whole year. I think we answered back well by beating them.”
Primarily behind Tanksley’s aggressiveness that led to his game-high 23 points (20 from inside the arc or at the foul line) and Bernardi’s clutch treys, Hofstra got the game to a point where Green (who started just 2-for-7) made two straight shots (on a layup and 3-pointer) before Tanksley added a driving layup to give the Pride a 65-59 lead with 4:27 remaining.
But the Tribe’s only two scorers in double figures, junior forward Daniel Dixon (10 points) — who tore the Pride’s collective hearts out with a last-second, double overtime, left corner 3-pointer on the same floor, to beat Hofstra by one point in last year’s semifinals — and sophomore forward Greg Malinowski (22 points) drained consecutive 3-pointers before sophomore guard David Cohn (nine points) added a layup to put William & Mary back up, 67-65, with 2:55 left.
However, after Tanksley missed a layup, Malinowski misfired on an open 3-point attempt (from the same spot as Dixon’s game-winner a year prior) with 2:10 to go.
That allowed Green to tie the game on a pair of free throws, and after two missed jumpers by First Team All-CAA junior guard Omar Prewitt (who was a big factor in the Tribe’s semifinal win last year, but who was held to five points while missing 11 of 12 shots on Sunday), Green (the CAA assist leader, who ranks 7th nationally in assists), drove the lane and dished to graduate forward (via Princeton) Denton Koon (10 points) for a tie-breaking layup with 8.5 seconds to go.
Recalling what happened last year, Green said, “That one shot playing in the back of our heads all season,” Green said. “We know it was a great game last year and it came up short on one possession, but today we got the win, and I’m just glad we can go to the championship.”
After Cohn missed a well-defended, straightaway trey at the other end, Tanksley made the first of two free throws to give Hofstra a 3-point lead with only 1.9 seconds left, and William & Mary never got off another shot.
“He’s like this team,” Mihalich said of Koon, who is often relegated to being Hofstra’s fourth or fifth offensive option. “He’s a winner… he’s part of our culture. The only thing disappointing about Denton Koon is I only get to coach that guy one year.”
On the pass, Green said, “It was just instinct. I was trying to get the layup [myself], but I saw (senior guard Terry) Tarpey itching to get the steal, so once he stepped up, I just dished it off to Denton.”
Shaver said of Green, “That’s why he’s the best player in the league. I’ve really not admired a kid in this league any more than I have him. He makes the right play 99.9 percent of the time, whether it’s the shot or the pass, or the deflection on the defensive end.”
Green’s game-winning pass gave him 225 assists for the year and moved him one assist ahead of Craig “Speedy” Claxton — a former NBA first-round draft pick and NBA title winner who guided Hofstra to its last two conference tournament championships in the America East Conference — for second place on the all-time Hofstra single season list. In the title game, Green needs four more assists to get the school record and 25 points to pass Northeastern senior guard David Walker for the CAA scoring lead.
Claxton recently congratulated Green via Twitter prior to the tournament, jokingly telling Green to leave his records alone.
Head coach Joe Mihalich later began the postgame press conference by switching name cards with Green before saying, “If you only knew how bad I want to sit in front of Juan’ya Green’s card. I just want to be Juan’ya Green for one day.”
With the Tribe taking away a dangerous pick-and-roll game between Green and Gustys (who hurt his ankle 1:06 in, but was okay thereafter) and deftly defending passing lanes, the Pride was forced to take 32 shots from behind the arc (making 11) out of its 54 total field goal attempts.
“On winning despite Gustys being a non-factor offensively, Mihalich said, “That’s the way this team is. And the resiliency, the composure, the maturity… nobody got rattled… we kept our cool. We felt good about ourselves and we had that swag down the stretch.”
Head coach Tony Shaver said, “When you try and take one thing away from them, it leaves other things open… we wanted somebody [other than Green] to try to beat us and Tanksley did that. They’re very balanced. They’ve got a great team.”
He added, “A heartbreaking loss, no doubt about it. We played a great team today. They’ve proven for four months that they’re the best team in this league, and they find a way to respond, they find a way to answer. A lot of close games for them. Tonight’s another example, but they find a way to make the plays they have to have down the stretch. They did what they’ve don’t all year long — find a way to win close ballgames.”
An intense, physical battle from the start produced eight ties and 11 lead changes, as William & Mary erased an early 12-6 deficit with a 26-15 run, to lead 32-27, before heading to the locker room with a 34-30 edge.
A Green 3-pointer from the left wing capped a 13-7 spurt to start the second half, which moved the Pride back in front, 43-41, but Hofstra wouldn’t lead again until Tanksley’s only 3-pointer (in five attempts) gave the Pride a 52-50 edge with 10:59 to play, just before the Tribe scored the next six points to go ahead by four.
When Gustys fouled out at the under-8 media time out (with 7:50 remaining), Mihalich elected not to go big with 6-foot-10 freshman center Andre Walker (two points and one rebounds in seven minutes). Instead, he inserted 6-foot-1 freshman guard Desure Buie (two points, two assists, two steals), and the smaller lineup sparked Hofstra until Gustys went back in for Buie with 1:53 left, just before William & Mary lost the lead for good.
“We were prepared to do both (go big or small),” Mihalich said. “In a strange way it helped us, because they went small [too], and maybe it helped us a little bit with our matchups.”
The Pride’s win sets up an intriguing matchup for Monday night’s title game. Hofstra and UNCW clearly separated themselves as co-champions, each with a 14-4 conference record this season, three games ahead of a trio of teams tied for third place.
They also had an interesting split in their regular season series, with the Seahawks rallying from a 20-point, first-half deficit to win, at Hofstra, 70-69, on a 3-pointer in the final seconds, on Feb. 4, before the Pride paid UNCW back by coming back from an 18-point, first-half hole, to hang on for a 70-69 victory in Wilmington, 19 days later.
While the stakes will be the highest they’ve been in all season for Hofstra on Monday night, Mihalich believes the most pressure his team might face (other than in the literal form, from UNCW’s trapping style), might already be over.
“The hardest part is getting to that championship game,” he said. “You don’t think [Juan’ya and Ameen] are tired? They can rest in May.”
Having played every minute of Hofstra’s first two tournament games, Green said, “Just like every [other] game, I try not to think about it, especially when you’re playing a game like this, to get to the championship, you can’t let fatigue faze you. You’ve just got to do everything you can for your teammates.”
Reaching a conference title game for the first time after spending two year with Tanksley, under Mihalich, at Niagara, Green added, “It feels great. It’s exciting. It’s the first time in the four years that I’ve played. Getting there is tough, but I’m glad we’re getting to play for the championship tomorrow. I’m just very excited, for me and my team.”
Looking ahead to the title game, Tanksley said, “I’m very confident. Our coaches prepare us. They always have game plan for every team. I go into every game confident, especially now, [we’re playing UNCW] for a third time. Ain’t nothing we haven’t seen.”
One more CAA win away, Tanksley and his teammates would certainly like to say the same about an NCAA tournament berth.
BACK WHERE THEY BELONG: AFTER 10-YEAR WAIT, UNCW REACHES 10TH FINAL
After the Hofstra Pride did its part to avenge its own CAA semifinal loss last year, the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks needed to do the same (after losing to the Northeastern Huskies in the CAA semifinals last year), to make sure the two best teams all year would play for the CAA championship.
While UNCW (24-7, 16-4 CAA) nearly gave away all of a 14-point lead with 9:10 left, the Seahawks ultimately hung on for a 73-70 semifinal win over defending CAA tournament champion, sixth-seeded Northeastern (18-15, 10-10 CAA), on year after they lost in the same round to the Huskies (who were then the seed).
Although Second Team All-CAA senior forward Quincy Ford scored 16 of his team-high 21 points in the second half, First Team All-CAA junior guard Chris Flemmings matched Ford’s point total while scoring 13 second-half points.
Following a tight first half that ended with a 6-0 run which gave UNCW a slim 34-32 halftime lead, the Seahawks started the second half on a 24-14 spurt, extend their lead to 58-44.
However, a furious late rally, on the strength of a 26-11 stretch, pulled Northeastern to within 70-69, on a Ford tip-in with 14 seconds left.
Ford was fouled with 3.3 seconds left, but after making one free throw, he opted to miss the second intentionally with the Huskies down, 72-70.
Flemmings was fouled and missed a foul shot before making a second, with 1.4 seconds remaining, to keep the door open for the Huskies.
But Northeastern’s final chance was thwarted when Flemmings tipped a long inbounds pass and the clock ran out by the time the ball landed out of bounds.
While Hofstra will be making only its second CAA title game appearance, it will be UNCW’s 10th, and each team’s first since the Seahawks captured their fourth CAA tournament championship with a 78-67 victory over the Pride (actually, the Flying Dutchmen then) in the 2006 title game.
“I know it’s been documented in the early 2000s how well this program had played, going to the NCAA [tournament] and winning [CAA tournament] championships, but it means a lot [now], CAA Coach of the Year Kevin Keatts said. “To get the opportunity to get the school back in that situation. I’m excited about it… I’m proud to be in this moment right now.”
He also added on the prior two meetings this season between Hofstra and his own team, “I don’t know that you can take much from [those games],” Both teams blew early leads. I think it’ll be another good basketball game.”
Junior guard Denzel Ingram (14 points), who broke a tie with a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of the Seahawks win’ at Hofstra this season, said, “It was a battle. Both games were fun, exciting, it was competitive and just great games. I’m excited [to play Hofstra for the title].”
Knowing first-hand what it takes to capture the CAA title after his team won it last year, Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said, “I think they’re both equally equipped [to win the championship game]. Both those teams play a team brand of basketball. Obviously, Juan’ya Green has had an unbelievable year. He’s a great guy to have on your team in late-clock situations.
“But as you saw with Kevin Keatts’ group today, Chris Flemmings has a lot of answers too. The both have multiple All-Conference level players… it should be a really exciting matchup.
“It’s probably the one game you can watch all year long without a watchful eye, just watch it as a fan. I’ll be doing that for sure. Two great programs, two great coaches, two teams that are championship caliber teams… and whoever gets the [NCAA tournament] bid is going to represent this conference in a really great fashion.”
And perhaps the key, as Mihalich alluded to now that Hofstra has reached the championship game, is to relax.
“We were loose last year,” Coen said. “There’s a lot of pressure on these kids. Sometimes as coaches, we can add to that… it’s an experience of a life time, to compete in the championship game… and it should be fun. You should be on high alert, but should enjoy it.”