It may not have seemed like it at the start nor down the stretch, but the Hofstra Pride was too focused on the task at hand to think about one of the biggest non-conference games in its history looming afterwards.
Nevertheless, the Pride (6-4), after rallying from 13 points down early in the second half to take a four-point lead late, allowed the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (6-2) to close with a 13-3 run and rally for an 81-75 win at the Mack Sports Complex on Tuesday night.
St. Bonaventure’s fifth straight victory snapped a four-game winning streak for Hofstra, which will next appear on ESPN from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Sunday against the sixth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, who prior to losing at home to No. 2 (then 11th-ranked) UCLA last Saturday, were the nation’s No. 1 team.
Although there is palatable buzz around Hofstra’s campus about facing Kentucky, the Pride knows its current place in college basketball’s hierarchy and viewed a good test against a solid Atlantic-10 opponent as a big game in itself.
So much so that head coach Joe Mihalich was searching for answers as to why the crowd of 2,112 (which included a sizable and boisterous St. Bonaventure contingent behind the Bonnies’ bench) made Hofstra’s 5,023 seat arena sound like more like a road game for the Pride.
“It’s disappointing but it’s a credit to them,” Mihalich said. “They have a good following. It seemed like there were more Bonaventure people than Hofstra people [in the crowd].”
Looking ahead to playing Kentucky, Mihalich tempered his frustration about the lack of fan support at home games in recent years with the relief that the most discussed game on the Pride’s schedule is finally coming up next.
“One of the feelings I have is, I’m glad it’s finally here, because it’s all people are talking about and we’ve had other games to play,” Mihalich said.
“I’ll say this — I’m disappointed that today, walking through campus, we had a big game tonight and nobody was talking about it, nobody knew about it. Somebody asked me if we had a home game tonight, but somebody [else] said, ‘Oh, you’ve got Kentucky on Sunday.’”
Standing next to junior center Rokas Gustys (the nation’s leading rebounder), Mihalich added, “It’s a chance of a lifetime — great venue, it’s an incredible thing. Twenty years from now, Rok will be telling his grandchildren that he played against Kentucky in the Barclays Center. I just wish people would have been talking about this game (against St. Bonaventure) too.
“I don’t know what else we have to do to get people to come here. We won 24 games last year and finished [tied for] first [place in the Colonial Athletic Association], 20 the year before and went to the postseason [and] we’ve got the leading rebounder in the country. I don’t know what we have to do to get people to come to [our home] games. [We play] an exciting brand of basketball [and we play in] a beautiful, beautiful [arena].”
Whether or not some extra Hofstra fans drowning out the Bonnies’ supporters might have made a difference for Mihalich’s team, the ones who weren’t in attendance missed an entertaining battle which featured a dozen lead changes and nine ties between teams from two of the country’s top 12 conferences.
“It hurts to be on the short side of this one,” Mihalich said. “A great college basketball game. Two teams, toe-to-toe, slugging it out. Our kids played their hearts out the second half. The first half, I didn’t think we played as hard as we needed to.”
That was when Hofstra, as it often has this season, lacked defensive cohesion and intensity and allowed 12 of St. Bonaventure’s 16 offensive rebounds as the Bonnies closed the opening half on a 15-4 run to lead, 48-36, at intermission.
That margin grew to as much as 51-38, with 18:24 left, before the Pride uncharacteristically switched out of its usual zone defense in favor of a mixture of man-to-man and 1-3-1 looks, and committed to digging in more defensively.
“I think our guys just realized that they were a lot better than they played in the first half,” Mihalich noted. “They just reached down inside and played a little harder.”
From Mihalich’s viewpoint, it wasn’t the different strategy but the increased level of exertion from his players which had the Pride go on a 34-17 spurt that put Hofstra up, 72-68, with 5:15 left.
“It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it,” Mihalich insisted. “We’ve won games playing zone, where if we had played man-to-man, we’d have lost… and we’ve lost games where we’ve played man-to-man. You do have to be ready to play both and I give [the players] credit for playing what kind of became our secondary defense pretty good [tonight].”
Gustys added, “Coach Mihalich is a great coach. He knows what he’s doing and he knows when we have to play zone and he knows when we have to play man. We just listen to him and play as hard as we can.”
Picking up its energy, Hofstra forced 10 of the Bonnies’ 16 turnovers in the second half, when the Pride recorded six of its nine steals. A game-high four thefts (three after halftime) came from Gustys, who led Hofstra with 20 points (on 9 of 14 shooting) and nine rebounds.
The Pride also reversed a key trend, outscoring St. Bonaventure 9-2 in second-chance points after the break, following a 10-2 Bonnies edge in that category during the opening half.
“I would say the effort, in the first half, it was just not good [with] the rebounds,” Gustys admitted. “Their guards were crashing, and their bigs, we didn’t do a great job of contesting. They had so many more second chances than us. In the second half, we kind of flipped [that] around.”
Still clinging to a four-point lead with under five minutes left, Hofstra’s offense suddenly bogged down as the Pride’s defense could once again no longer contain St. Bonaventure’s dynamic back court duo of junior guards, Jaylen Adams (who had a game-high 31 points to go along with eight rebounds and five assists) and Matt Mobley (23 points and a game-best 12 rebounds).
With the former making a jumper and four free throws and the latter adding a 3-pointer and a pair of foul shots, Adams and Mobley accounted for all but two of the Bonnies’ final 13 points during the final decisive run.
“We’ve got to close the deal off there and we didn’t,” Mihalich said. “Mobley and Adams, they made plays when they had to.”
Yet for a player who entered the game with a nation-leading 14 rebounds per contest, it was the boards that the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Mobley secured compared to the nine that Gustys (at 6-foot-9, 260 pounds) grabbed which jumped off the stat sheet for Hofstra’s big man in the middle.
“I looked at the numbers and I was like, ‘Wow, that team outrebounded us,’” Gustys said. “A guy got 12 rebounds and I only got nine. If I would have got 14 or 15 rebounds, we probably would have won the game, so I take that blame on myself. I could have had a better rebounding night.”
Putting that behind him, Gustys is hoping that he and his team will yield something tangible from a matchup on Sunday in which few give Hofstra a chance to remain competitive for more than merely a few minutes.
“It’s going to be a great experience for everybody,” Gustys said. “We have so many young guys. Hopefully, it’s gonna build up their experience and prepare them for conference play.”
Sizing up Kentucky’s roster, Gustys added, “They don’t have any weaknesses. They’re a great team and playing in the Brooklyn Nets’ arena is going to be special. It’s my first time [playing in that type of venue], too. It’s going to be great. We just have to prepare and play our game. Of course, it’s a big game for us and everybody’s talking about it, but for us, we just have to play our game and do as much as we can. Like Coach said, [we’re] going to remember [it years later, but] we’re not trying to embarrass ourselves.”
While Hofstra might lack the firepower to avoid doing that, Gustys, for one, won’t back down, thanks to his own high-profile background.
“I came from Oak Hill Academy (which once groomed NBA stars like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Rajon Rondo, among many others),” he said. “I’ve played against Kentucky [type of] recruits, five stars and whatever… I’m gonna have to play the same way I played tonight. I’m gonna try to score, I’m gonna try to rebound.”
Noting the 23-point, 15-rebound performance of NBA Developmental League forward Jameel Warney, in Stony Brook’s 28-point NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky last March, Gustys added, “Looking at Jameel Warney last year, the team didn’t do well, but [he] did well. I’m not trying to be that type of guy, I’m trying to win. It’s playing Kentucky. It’s like, what else you can say? [They were] the No. 1 team a week ago, you know?
“I’m not trying to get overexcited… [with the] bright lights [and] playing on ESPN. Just try to relax and just play a hard game. Playing Kentucky is the same as playing St. Bonaventure. I feel like this game [tonight] prepared us for that game on Sunday.
“I’m going to make sure guys are excited and ready to go. [For a school like Hofstra], you’re [maybe] only going to have this opportunity once in your life.”
And when that’s over, it’s back to business as usual with Mihalich and Hofstra hoping that others will still pay attention.