NY Sports Day
Jon Wagner

Hofstra Heartbreak: UNCW Rallies for OT Win in CAA Title Game

BALTIMORE — Sometimes, even the best players have bad games at the worst possible times.

Unfortunately for the Hofstra Pride, that happened to Juan’ya Green in a way that reminded New York basketball fans of John Starks’ fateful shooting game nearly 22 years ago.

When the 24-year-old Green was only two years old, Starks, a fan favorite, shot 2-for-18 as the New York Knicks lost Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals by six points. Meanwhile, the champion Houston Rockets shot 46.6 percent and Starks’ teammates were even better, combining to make nearly half their shots, going a collective 29-for-60.

Similarly, Green — the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year — went just 2–for-16 (including 0-for-6 from 3-point range), as the top-seeded Hofstra Pride (24-9, 16-5 CAA) blew a 12-point second-half lead in losing the CAA tournament championship game to the second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks (25-7, 17-4 CAA), who by scoring the last seven points over the final 1:20 of overtime, secured an 80-73 victory and their fifth CAA tournament championship (along with an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament) at Royal Farms Arena on Monday night.

Like Starks’ teammates, the Pride — aside from Green (13 points, game-high eight assists) — shot well enough to win, going 21-for-40 (52.5 percent), led by senior forward Ameen Tanksley (who scored 17 of his game-high 24 points in the opening half) and sophomore Rokas Gustys, who added 18 points while pulling down a CAA tournament record 23 rebounds (after grabbing 21 boards in each of Hofstra’s two regular season meeting with UNCW this year).

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Although neither Starks nor Green made a 3-point shot in their respective games, Starks mainly missed from 3-point range (where he took 11 attempts), whereas Green missed six times from that distance and eight times from inside the arc, including three second-half layups. Two of those came in the final 4:38 for best player in the conference, who had routinely come through in late, clutch situations to help Hofstra pull out several close games this season.

“It was horrible,” Green said. “I didn’t make shots for my teammates and I didn’t make the right plays. I just wasn’t making shots I usually make.”

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Two-time, reining CAA Coach of the Year Kevin Keatts said of the strategy against Green, “He’s such a tough matchup, and we wanted to kind of take the ball out of his hand as much as we could and make those other guys make plays. I thought we did a good job with that. If you can get Juan’ya Green to be 2-for-16, then you did a great job on him.”

Challenging how much UNCW’s patented game-long full-court pressure might have affected Hofstra, head coach Joe Mihalich said, “I think their half-court defense was better than their full-court defense. They made it hard to make passes, they made it hard to drive the basketball. It was a physical game, and we were just not as tough as we had to be in the half-court.”

Tanksley added, “I wasn’t worn down at all. It was just different play calling and different execution. I wasn’t tired at all.”

Finding another way to score, Tanksley (who made all nine of his foul shots) and Green (who made nine of 10 free throws) accounted for most of Hofstra’s damage at the foul line, where the Pride outscored the Seahawks, 23-15.

But they also went cold down the stretch (especially Green) after Hofstra withstood a hot start by UNCW, which made seven of its first nine shots, and led, 14-7 and 18-11.

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The Seahawks missed 17 of their next 22 shots as the Pride reeled off 14 straight points — to lead 25-18 — and a little later, 34-23, after a larger 23-5 spurt, before settling for a 41-34 advantage at halftime.

Counterintuitively, that didn’t bode well for Hofstra, as the team with the lead at intermission lost all three games between the teams this season (with UNCW rallying from a 20-point first-half deficit to win at Hofstra, 70-67, on Feb. 4, before the Pride came back from 18 points down to win, 70-69, at Wilmington, exactly three weeks later).

The Seahawks causing second-half problems was reminiscent of the Feb. 4 game, when Hofstra (which shot just 6-for-24 in the second half on Monday night, thanks mostly to the 12 straight misses) was held to just 4-for-22 shooting by UNCW after going 46.9 percent in the first half of that game.

After shooting 57.7 percent (15-for-26) in the opening half of the championship game, and starting the second half 5-for-10 — while matching a game-high lead, at 52-40 (on a dunk by Gustys, with 15:33 left, off of a feed from Green) — Hofstra later went almost 11 minutes without a field goal, as the Seahawks used a 28-12 run to lead, 68-64, on a 3-pointer with 3:03 left, by senior guard Craig Ponder (team-high 20 points, 16 after halftime), who was primarily responsible for harassing Green on the defensive end.

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The Pride’s drought included a string of 12 straight misses over a period of 7:31, with Green missing half of those shots and Tanksley missing three, including the last two, just 10 seconds apart, before a Green layup — his only made field goal on 13 second-half shots — with 1:43 to go, brought Hofstra to within 68-66.

Green’s final missed layup could have tied the game with just under a minute left, but he did pull the Pride even on a pair of free throws with 32.8 seconds remaining.

An offensive foul by Ponder with 5.2 seconds left gave Hofstra a chance to win, but all the Pride could manage was a desperation 40-footer by Green that never had a chance, after the referees mistakenly gave Mihalich’s team the ball on the opposite side of where the charge occurred.

Grimacing, Mihalich, said, “Whew… there was a play we practice every day. We had it all set up, where to put our players. When we came out [of the time out], the referee gave us the ball on the other side of the floor. Listen, it’s hard to be an official… I’m trying to politely say that they gave us the ball on the wrong side of the floor and our setup was for the other side of the floor.”

Mihalich — who was coaching in his 100th game at Hofstra, where he is 54-46 in three seasons, after going 265-202, with two NCAA and three NIT appearances in 17 years at Niagara — said he didn’t have an opportunity to alert the officials of the error before the ball was inbounded.

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That proved to be critical for the Pride, which missed four of its six shots in overtime — with Green going 0-for-2 — while the Seahawks made all four of their shots in the extra session.

After Green missed the first of two free throws, redshirt junior Chris Flemmings (19 points), a walk-on at UNCW from Division II Barton College, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, staked the Seahawks to a 72-69 lead on a jumper with 3½ minutes left.

Reserve freshman guard Desure Buie (three points, two assists) cut that margin to one on a double clutch layup, off of an assist from Green, before he assisted on a nice pick-and-roll dunk by Gustys, which tied the game at 73-all, with 1:36 to play.

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But miscommunication on defense led to freshman guard C.J. Bryce getting free on the blocks. After getting fouled by Green, Bryce put UNCW ahead to stay, 76-73, on a 3-point play, with 1:20 left.

Following a missed jumper by Buie, redshirt junior guard Denzel Ingram (17 points) — who joined Ponder, Green, Tanksley and Gustys on the All-tournament team — drained a straightaway 3-pointer, to extend the Seahawks’ lead to 79-73, with 34 seconds remaining, before Green airballed a forced, well-contested trey 10 seconds later to effectively end Hofstra’s hope of earning its first automatic tournament berth since the Pride won consecutive America East Conference championships in 2000 and 2001, before joining the CAA the following year.

Afterwards, Mihalich said, “I just came from a sad locker room. The dream we had didn’t come true. You can’t get any closer than we got.

“We had our chances, I can’t be more proud of a bunch of guys and this team right here. We’ll deal with this. For whatever reason, we’re supposed to deal with it and we will.”

Referring to Green and Tanksley, Mihalich added, “My heart’s broken for these guys, especially these two guys that are sitting between me because of what they’ve done for this program. Sometimes in life, you don’t get what you deserve. Not to take anything away from the other team, but in my heart of hearts, I think these guys deserve to climb up the ladder, but we didn’t get it done tonight.”

Instead, it was UNCW which did that, but not before retiring commissioner Tom Yeager — the only commissioner the CAA had over its first 31 years — cut the first piece of the net with a special pair of commemorative scissors he was given at halftime. The championship trophy also bore Yeager’s name for the first time.

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For the Seahawks, it was their 10th CAA finals appearance, but first since last winning the tournament title over Hofstra in 2006. After losing its first four CAA championship contests from 1987-98, UNCW has now gone 5-1 in those games since 2000.

The close outcome of the Seahawks’ latest title — the fourth overtime game in the CAA finals, and first in 11 years — was fitting as Hofstra and UNCW (each at 14-4 in CAA play during the regular season) had clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack, with three teams tied for third place, each three games behind the Pride and Seahawks.

“It was a great game,” Keatts said. “We made a few more shots in overtime and made a few more plays than they did… let’s give Hofstra a lot of credit. They’ve had an unbelievable year. Joe’s done a great job, great players on their team… it was a great battle to the end and we were fortunate to come out on top.”

Earlier, Mihalich, who brought the program back to prominence after he took over a 7-win team that had as many player arrests (six) as wins only three years ago, admitted, “We’re devastated right now, we’re broken-hearted… for a while now, we’re just gonna stare at the ceiling. But when the dust settles, we’re gonna realize what we accomplished this year, which is [winning] 24 games so far.

“Hopefully, we’ll win a few more. We got the [regular season] championship in the ninth-best conference in the country. It sounds a little self-serving, but I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done. It’s the second year in a row we’ve won more than 20 games. It’s not easy to do that. So we’re proud of where we’re at. When we get this all in perspective, which will take some time, we’ll be back.”

As the CAA’s one seed, the Pride is guaranteed an NIT bid, though Mihalich still holds out hope for a slim chance at joining UNCW in the NCAA tournament via and at-large bid.

Comparing the empty feeling to when Hofstra lost by a point, on a last-second shot in double overtime, as a five seed, in the semifinals of last year’s CAA tournament, Mihalich said, “Pain is pain, but we got a step closer, nearer to the dream. Not too many people get to the championship [game]. What are there, 32 conferences, only 64 [teams] get to the championship game? So, we did that. We’ll use this [as motivation].

“I don’t know the numbers as far as being an at-large team. We’ve done some things that you’d like to think would [put us] in the discussion. I don’t know if we get far in the discussion, but we should be in the discussion. We’ve got Top 50 wins, we’ve got some Top 100 wins, our record against the Top 100 is good, [our] RPI is good. Coming into the day, I think it was mid-50’s (actually, a CAA-leading 52). Is that going to be good enough? I don’t know. If we end up being in the NIT, we’ll do our best to represent the league and the university the best we can.”

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Later realizing that NCAA would like be out of reach for the Pride, Mihalich said, “We’ll take a couple days here and lick our wounds, and get back on campus, and take a deep breath… we’ll certainly take two or three days off and let these guys decompress a little bit, and get better mentally and physically. I know these guys. They’ve got basketball left. They wanna play. They’re winners. We didn’t win tonight but that doesn’t mean we’re not winners.

“We played like champions and hey, we’ll try to win the national championship in the NIT, just like anybody that’s in the NIT. It’s a great tournament. It’s not like the old days, where guys would get some cigars and a good bottle of scotch, and let their friends into the tournament. It’s [now] the best teams [that didn’t make the NCAA tournament]. We’ll be proud to be in that tournament.”

Reflecting on what he knows could have been his last chance to reach the NCAA tournament, Green said, “I’m proud just to wear a Hofstra [uniform] and just to be a part of the program. The things we did this year, I’m happy for. We came up short this year, but I’m proud of all the accomplishments we [had].”

Tanksley added, “I’m appreciative of everything that Hofstra’s done and gave me. A free scholarship to play basketball [and] great teammates. We were able to build a family here. I hope they keep it up when we leave.”

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Of course, the Pride might have written an ending with an NCAA berth had UNCW not shut down Green, who with four first-half assists, passed current Hofstra assistant coach Speedy Claxton, who was the school’s last star to lead the program to the NCAA tournament (in 2000 and 2001).

When the Seahawks’ best players sat down at the postgame conference table and checked the stat sheet, Ingram pointed out Green’s 2-for-16 to Flemmings.

“Look at that, man,” Ingram said. “Look at that, look at that. Come on, now,” he said with a laugh.

Surprised, Flemmings responded, “Oh, man! [He had] a game!” as he turned to Ponder, saying, “Okay, Craig. Lock up man, Craig. Two-for-16?”

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Later, Ponder said of Green, “He’s a terrific player but we trust in our defense. We feel like we’re good players too. As a competitor, you just look forward to matching up against someone as good as he is. We just did a lot of scouting. Our coaches went through a lot of film with us and we locked in on his tendencies, and took him out of what he likes to do.”

Ingram then added of Ponder, “Craig is one of the older guys. It’s his senior year, so we definitely wanted to go hard for him. He’s a great player, a great friend off the court, and he told us we could win championships here. We had a chance to be special and that’s what we did.”

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Talking about how he was able to keep his team loose ahead of the championship game, Keatts said, “I’m so proud of these guys and of what we accomplished… we laughed a lot today, we joked a lot. You don’t want guys tight, so I tried to say a few jokes. They were corny jokes, but they certainly made them laugh a little bit.”

Looking ahead to what’s next, Keatts added, “We are unique as far as our [aggressive, pressing] style. Certainly, we’d love to have a favorable matchup, but we’re excited about being in [the NCAA tournament]. We’re not going to ask for who we’re gonna play [or] where we’re gonna go. We’re just excited for the opportunity… and think we’re ready to play any type of team that we’ll have to play.”

To get to that point though, the Seahawks first had to change up what was going wrong against the Pride.

“We believe,” Keatts said, referring to many times his team rallied from deficits the way it did again to win a title.

Flemmings said, “If there’s time on the clock, we never believe that we’re out of a game. We’re gonna fight and give it everything we’ve got no matter what the score is. After halftime, come out [like] the score’s 0-0 [as if] it’s a whole new game.

“It’s just an incredible feeling. We knew it was going to be a tough game, a tough road here, and we just got it done.”

Ponder added, “We never give up, we never fold, and it feels good to be champions.”

And then there was the other side of the sometimes cruel, fine line between that type of elation and bitter agony.

“We fought so hard and came up short,” Tanksley said. “We’re just heartbroken.”

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