Last March, the Stony Brook Seawolves were dancing in their first NCAA tournament, after winning the America East Conference, while the Hofstra Pride narrowly missed its fifth dance and first since 2001, after dropping an overtime heartbreaker in the finals of the much tougher Colonial Athletic Association.
With neither team starting conference play yet this season, it’s difficult to say whether either school will win its respective conference tournament and dance this year. But as each squad winds down the non-conference portion of its own schedule, one thing is certain: Hofstra is home to the best men’s Division I basketball team on Long Island.
The Pride (7-5) made that abundantly clear, scoring the first four points, going on a 13-2 run to lead, 17-4, and never looking back in a 96-58 utter domination of the Seawolves (3-7) at the Mack Sports Complex on Tuesday night.
Junior center Rokas Gustys, the nation’s leading rebounder, set the tone early, converting a layup on the game’s first possession, before grabbing five boards within the first 2½ minutes. By halftime, he had matched the 13 rebounds he was averaging when the night started. Gustys finished with 18 boards and 11 points (for his fourth double-double of the season), as one of six Hofstra players — including all five starters — who scored in double figures.
Heading that group was sophomore reserve guard Justin Wright-Foreman, who while pulling down a career-best eight rebounds, also led all scorers with a career-high 22 points (on 8-of-12 shooting) in as many minutes off the bench.
“This is no surprise, the way he scored tonight,” head coach Joe Mihalich said of Wright-Foreman. “He did it all through the preseason. He just had to get comfortable and get a little bit of confidence. It’s not magic… he just had to have a little success to get his confidence. The man can really score… and if he feels comfortable out there, there’ll be more games like this, I hope.”
Half-jokingly, Mihalich then turned to Wright-Foreman and drew a laugh from his star of the game after telling him directly, “You’re allowed to do this every night.”
Aiding Gustys and Wright-Foreman were freshman point guard Eli Pemberton (18 points), junior forward Ty Greer (14 points and a season-high 12 rebounds), senior guards Deron Powers (13 points and a game-high seven assists) and senior Brian Bernardi (11 points), all of whom helped the Pride lead 44-24 at halftime and by as many as 43 points just before Mihalich emptied his bench with three minutes left.
Relentless at each end of the floor, Hofstra had its largest win of the season — even surpassing a 33-point home win over Division III Medaille College on Nov. 25, as the Pride shot 50.7 percent (35-for-69), including 47.6 percent (10-for-21) from 3-point range, while limiting the Seawolves to just 33.8 percent shooting (24-for-71) overall and 21.4 percent (6-for-28) from behind the arc.
By themselves, Gustys and Greer matched the 30 rebounds Stony Brook had, as Hofstra (59 boards) totaled nearly twice that many.
Coming off an emotional five-point home loss to Rutgers and former head coach Steve Pikiell (who left Stony Brook after last season), the Seawolves were catching the Pride at the wrong time, as noted by Mihalich, who credited his team’s prior two-game losing streak against tough competition (in a six-point home loss to St. Bonaventure and a 23-point defeat to No. 6 Kentucky on Sunday) with preparing his team well.
“I think the outcome of this game is the result of what happened last week,” he said. “We came up short, but I think we got better against those two teams. I think we learned a lot about ourselves and we were looking forward to getting back on the court again.”
While Hofstra ultimately proved to be ready, Mihalich had been only cautiously optimistic.
“Obviously, we’re very pleased with how we played,” he said. “[But there] was a little bit of a hangover possibility written all over it because we had that big game Sunday against Kentucky [on] national TV [at] the Barclays Center (in Brooklyn), and we had just one day to prepare [for Stony Brook]. So you’re worried a little bit about the residuals of that game, and our guys obviously handled it very well.”
Mihalich added, “The biggest thing coming out of Sunday was we learned really how to prepare for somebody and really how to play the game the right way. These guys were even saying before the game, ‘Let’s prepare for every game like it’s Kentucky.’ We learned how to do that against Kentucky (which only led Hofstra by three points with less than 3½ minutes left in the first half on Sunday) and I think it carried over.”
Gustys and Wright-Foreman agreed.
“Looking at Justin Wright-Foreman, he did well against Kentucky (with 14 points, all in the second half) and built that confidence. Tonight, he was the leading scorer and played well. The whole team played well. We played hard and concentrated and I think that Kentucky game really helped us and prepared us for [tonight’s] game… I feel like everybody concentrated and gave everything they [had].”
Wright-Foreman (who has scored 29 percent — 36 of 124 — of his total points on the season over his past three halves, after scoring a total of 44 points as a freshman last year) added, “It was a great experience (against Kentucky), especially playing against [that] group of guys, who are potential first-round draft picks for the NBA. It was just an all-around great experience for all of us. We just had to embrace that moment and this game, we just had to pick up where we left off.”
Winning big came at a perfect time for Hofstra, which will have to wait until Dec. 22 before hosting Siena in its final non-conference game of the regular season, and then wait for the last day of the calendar year before opening CAA play at Delaware.
“This is the way to go into a nine-day layoff because the alternative is you don’t get it done and you’ve got to think about a bad game for nine days,” Mihalich said. “So this is great.”
Mihalich also enjoyed extending Hofstra’s commanding all-time series lead to 20-5 over the Stony Brook, dating back to the 1972-73 season.
“It always means a little bit more to play a crosstown rival, to play a local team,” Mihalich said. “It always feels a little bit better.”
Winning 12 of the first 13 matchups between the teams through 1999, the Pride went 6-3 to carry the flag for Nassau County over Suffolk County in annual meetings between 2000 and 2008 before the series was renewed annually again in 2014.
Following some easier wins for Hofstra, the rivalry had tightened up with Stony Brook gutting out a three-point road win in 2007, the Pride paying the Seawolves back on the road by five points a year later, then winning by one point on a shot in the final seconds at home two years ago, before the Seawolves pulled out a three-point home win over Hofstra last year.
This season, with each team losing a couple of major pieces to graduation last year, the Battle of Long Island was a surprising drastic departure which for now, gives Hofstra some undeniable bragging rights.
However, what Stony Brook and Hofstra each did last March wasn’t a motivating factor for Mihalich, with the Seawolves’ ability to become Long Island’s darlings (with its NCAA tournament berth) over the Pride, which remained in waiting to return to the dance.
“That didn’t enter my mind,” Mihalich said.
But staking claim as Long Island’s best team based on head-to-head battles did, for everyone on Hofstra and Stony Brook.
“It means a lot,” Gustys said. “It was very different the past couple of times we played against them… the rivalry, playing against them every year gets us ready for conference play.”
Freshman guard Michael Almonacy (team-high 15 points), a Brentwood, N.Y. native from about 12 away from Stony Brook’s campus, said, “It’s a big rivalry for us Long Island kids (like not only Almonacy, but Gustys’ backup, junior center Hunter Sabety, from Oceanside, N.Y., about seven miles from Hofstra’s campus).
“It’s just a big game all the time when these two teams play,” Almonacy added. “I’m looking forward to it way more next year because we just got blown out by them.”