Before losing to the sixth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, 96-73, during the second game of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival doubleheader at the Barclays Center on Sunday afternoon, Hofstra Pride head coach Joe Mihalich had jested about the stark differences between the programs led by himself and fellow head coach John Calipari.
“My joke is [Calipari] gets McDonald’s All-Americans and we get kids that eat at McDonald’s,” Mihalich told Newsday.
No offense to one of most successful fast food chains in world history, but with 3:20 left in the opening half, Mihalich might’ve considered rewarding his team with a visit to a much nicer restaurant, as Hofstra (6-5) was shockingly down just 36-33 to an overwhelming 24-point favorite that just over a week ago was voted the nation’s top team.
That’s when reality set in and dreams of a stunning upset subsided, as Kentucky (9-1) scored the final 12 points of the first half and 14 of the following 17 to start the second stanza, during a game-turning 26-3 run that put the Wildcats ahead, 62-36, just 3:51 after halftime.
The overmatched Pride never got closer than 21 points thereafter, and trailed by as much as 31 in a game that was originally planned to be the first event to take place at the new Nassau Coliseum, across the street from Hofstra’s campus, until construction delays with the Coliseum’s renovation moved the game to Brooklyn.
Mihalich recalled, “When I walked off the floor to the locker room [at halftime], I said to my staff, ‘I’d love to have those last three minutes of the first half back.’
“Last three minutes [of the] first half, first four minutes of the second half, 26-3 run for Kentucky, and that was the difference at the end of the game — 23 points. I don’t know if it really tells the story, but at the very least, I could say, ‘Give me those three minutes back.’”
Before that stretch, even Calipari was questioning what he had gotten himself and his team into against the determined, unintimidated Pride, which put up a good fight while aggressively attacking the basket from the start, to energize its outnumbered but impassioned fans with some early dunks and layups. Hofstra also got to the free throw line considerably more times (37-23) — where the Pride made significantly more foul shots (23-14) — than the Wildcats.
Calipari noted, “It was a three-point game and I’m sitting there like, ‘Why did I schedule this game? What was I thinking?’”
Asked how he’d feel about playing Hofstra again should the opportunity arise during a possible early-round NCAA tournament game in March, Calipari responded, “Not good, because… they were not afraid of us at all. They were physical. They made shots.”
The Pride was actually held to just 33.8 percent shooting (22-for-65) — including only 27.3 percent (6-for-22) from 3-point range — while the Wildcats shot considerably better, 51.4 percent (37-for-72).
But although Hofstra made 15 fewer field goals and missed only two fewer shots than Kentucky, the Pride still surprisingly outrebounded the bigger Wildcats, 45-41, including 19-12 on the offensive glass, while holding a significant 24-7 edge in second-chance points. And that was with junior center Rokas Gustys’ team-high eight rebounds falling well below his nation-best average of 13 boards per game (to go along with his 13 points).
“The rebounding really bothered me because a bunch of them were perimeter shots and our guys all just looked at the ball,” Calipari said. “And either [Hofstra] tipped it away or jumped over our back, or the ball went over our heads.”
Although that helped give Kentucky a scare until the waning moments of the first half, the difference in talent quickly took over. Two of those McDonald’s All-Americans that Mihalich alluded to, freshman guard Malik Monk and sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, led the charge as Kentucky quickly pulled away.
Up 38-33, Monk followed a 3-point play from Briscoe by singlehandedly scoring the final seven points before intermission.
Whereas everyone else collectively held their own for Hofstra — including guard Deron Powers (team-highs of 18 points and five assists) besting starting freshman guard De’Aron Fox (15 points) — the Pride’s other two starting guards, senior Brian Bernardi (seven points) and freshman Eli Pemberton (season-low four points) were outscored, 39-11, by the combination of Monk (game-high 20 points, four assists) and Briscoe (19 points and a team-best six assists).
Crediting the Pride, Briscoe said, “They were a good team… being up three, we knew that we had to start locking down on defense, get a couple stops and run out in transition.”
Monk added, “Basketball’s a game of runs, so [we knew] it was gonna come. The energy was [still] good.”
A key defensive adjustment late in the first half helped turn the game.
Calipari said, “We defended better. We switched [on] pick-and-rolls, [which were] killing us. I couldn’t get our four-man high enough, so then I said, ‘That’s it, we’re switching.’ And then we did some things at [the] half to play pick-and-roll a little bit different so [Hofstra] couldn’t just get a downhill run.”
But Calipari also acknowledged that despite the margin growing after halftime, it wasn’t as easy as it seemed for Kentucky.
“We got away from them and there was a gap, but at the end of the day, even the second half was 48-40,” he said. “It wasn’t like we just buried them.”
Focusing on the positives, Mihalich said, “I think we take a lot of good things from this game. I just told the team that… we outrebounded them, Rok comes up [two rebounds] short of a double-double against as good a front line as he’s going to see maybe in his life, let alone this year.
“Deron Powers can lead any team… and what he did today was [great].”
And then there was reserve sophomore guard Justin Wright-Foreman, who after going scoreless in only four first-half minutes, lifted his season scoring average to 8.8 points per game with 14 points in 13 second-half minutes, as the only Hofstra player to score more than six points after the break.
“That was another one of the bight things we can take out of this game,” Mihalich said. “He ought to feel pretty good about the fact he had 14 points against Kentucky. Hopefully he can build on that.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for the Pride — which before taking the same floor, saw LIU-Brooklyn, upset 14-point favorite St. John’s by one one point in the first game of Sunday’s festival — was its ability to fight and not back down, no matter the outside expectations.
While many saw the Wildcats’ decisive run coming, Powers and his teammates believed otherwise and never stopped battling.
“Send me into any game, I believe I can win,” Powers said. “I don’t care who I’m playing — if we’re playing Kentucky or we’re playing the (defending NBA champion Cleveland) Cavaliers. I don’t care who it is. I’m coming in that game ready to win. When I see 36-33, I feel like as a group, we all believe we can win this game.”
Asked if the lessons were worth the eventual sizable final margin of defeat, Gustys and Powers each replied, “Definitely.”
Powers elaborated, “I think any game we play, especially this game [today], we learn a lot about ourselves. We can compete and some of the [other] games we play, we need to play a lot better. So if we can play like [we did for most of the first half] against a top-notch team, then we definitely can do a lot better against [the types of] teams [we’re used to playing against].”
Mihalich was likewise upbeat about the Pride’s effort.
“We’re not discouraged,” he said. “We’re disappointed — I’m going to think about those three minutes and those seven minutes forever, but we’re not discouraged.
“We’ve grown a lot since we limped out of Manhattan’s gym (following an 80-68 loss on Nov. 18, in Hofstra’s third game of the season). We’re going to lick our wounds today, we’re going to learn from it and we can’t wait to get back on the court.”
The first chance to do that will be with a quick turnaround, in the battle of Long Island, against competition more befitting of Hofstra’s level, when the Pride hosts Stony Brook on Tuesday night, back on its own campus.
“It’s a great rivalry game,” Mihalich said. “We can’t wait to play it again. We want to get this taste out of our mouths. We want to build on what happened today.”
If Hofstra needs some added encouragement, the Pride can consider the words of Calipari, who said, “I would hope that Joe would look at how his team played in that first half and say, ‘If we can play like that, if that’s who we can be, we’re good. I’m happy.’”
Summing up the experience of taking a shot against Kentucky, Gustys said, “I hope we’re gonna take a lot from it. We played 33 minutes of great basketball — really, we can be proud of it — [for] seven minutes, we had a bad stretch — but I’m sure at the end of the season, we’re gonna look at it and gonna be like, ‘Hey, it was good for us. We learned something from it.’”