Like many of his counterparts, Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich views the college basketball season in three distinctive parts.
“There’s really three seasons, your non-conference, your regular season and the postseason,” he said, after watching his Hofstra Pride maintain its focus while cruising past the Siena Saints, 84-64, at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
The way Hofstra (8-5) concluded the first of those three hurdles has Mihalich and the Pride feeling very confident as they prepare for the second leg of their journey (during their second nine-day layoff this month), before Hofstra begins Colonial Athletic Association play at Delaware on New Year’s Eve.
Gaining momentum and confidence from staying with then-No. 6 Kentucky for 17 minutes almost two weeks ago, the Pride was an impressive plus-58 over its final two non-conference games, with a resounding 38-point victory over fellow Long Island rival Stony Brook before humbling the Saints (4-8), who were picked to finish second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Noting the long wait between playing Stony Brook and Siena, Mihalich said, “We had the nine-day break because of [final] exams, and coming into exams, we were playing pretty well. We had some great minutes against Kentucky [and] we played real well against Stony Brook. So there was a little bit of concern how sharp we would be tonight.”
Although there was a bit of early anxiety in that regard, when Hofstra trailed 4-2, more than three minutes into the game (and were only up 8-6, about three minutes later), the Saints never led again and saw the Pride go on a game-turning 25-7 run that put Hofstra up, 27-11, with 9:17 left in the opening half.
Siena scored the final five points of the frame, to get within 38-29 at halftime, and the Saints got as close as 40-33 early in the second half, but a trio of 3-pointers doubled a nine-point lead to 55-37, with 13:44 left, as Hofstra pulled away, to lead by as many 22 points, and by no fewer than 13 thereafter.
“I think we started out a little bit rusty, but obviously we picked up where we left off to dominate a pretty good team the way we did,” Mihalich said. “Right now, [the Saints] are not in sync, but… they’re [close] to getting it all together and winning that league.
“I think at the end of the year, we’ll look back and say, ‘This was a really good win against a good team.’ Five guys in double figures, a lot of contributions from a lot of people. A feel-good win and a good way to go into the holidays.”
While the nation’s leading rebounder, junior forward Rokas Gustys (10 points, game-high 15 rebounds), recorded his second straight triple-double, and fourth of the season, it was a quartet of Hofstra guards, including three starters — senior Deron Powers (game-bests of 21 points and eight assists), freshman Eli Pemberton (13 points) and senior Brian Bernardi (11 points) — along with reserve sophomore Justin Wright-Foreman (16 points in 24 minutes) that collectively, nearly matched Siena’s scoring output while accounting for 72.6 percent of Hofstra’s.
That group was also mainly responsible for the biggest difference in the game, from behind the arc, where the Pride went 11-for-21 (52.4 percent) to the Saints’ dismal 2-for-14 (14.3 percent).
Holding Siena to just 34.3 percent (24-for-70) shooting overall, Hofstra was 6-for-10 from 3-point range, as the Saints were 0-for-6 from that distance in the first half. While Siena remained stuck on those numbers, the Pride stayed hot, at 9-for-15 from beyond the arc, as the game began to get away from the Saints in the second half.
Powers, who shot 7-for-13 overall, while missing just one of five 3-point attempts, said, “I think it was my best shooting game,” before being reminded about his season-high-tying number of assists coming with only one turnover in 35 minutes.
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” he added with a laugh. “I’m impressed with the one turnover. That’s my thing. That’s one thing I try to do is limit my turnovers.”
His very solid overall game was something in the making, after Pemberton had initially taken over the offense earlier in the season before recently taking more of a complimentary role to Powers, who now seems to be filling the figuratively large shoes of Juan’ya Green (who graduated after becoming the CAA Player of the Year while leading Hofstra to its only CAA regular season title in school history and to within a few plays of reaching the NCAA tournament last season).
“It wasn’t just tonight, this was the culmination of a lot of games,” Mihalich said. “He showed the coaches and his teammates [before], that it’s his team. We’ve just got to give him the ball and let him run the team.”
Having to sit out a year after transferring from Hampton was difficult for Powers, but his battles in practice against Green improved him (and Green).
“Juan’ya had a great year last year because Deron was guarding him [in practice], making him better,” Mihalich said. “So by him making Juan’ya better, Juan’ya was making Deron better. So [Deron] didn’t play games last year, but every day in practice it was game-like.”
What Powers learned from Green, he said, was, “How to be a leader, certain decision-making aspects of the game and just some of his moves he used. I took that and incorporated it into my own game.”
Maybe he’s not quite what Green was for Hofstra — at least not yet — but both Powers and Mihalich are happy with the progress.
“It took a couple games to fall into that role, but I think it came along good,” Powers said.
Mihalich seems to believe Powers is already running the team just about as well as Green had.
“He’s following up a pretty tough act to follow, Juan’ya Green, and I don’t know if from that position, we’re missing much,” he said.
But not everyone expected Powers to be able to take on Green’s former role so effectively.
“Not really,” Wright-Foreman responded candidly when asked if he saw the transformation coming, before adding of Powers, “But a lot of hard work and dedication goes into that, so I’m proud of him. He’s working really hard… Deron’s more aggressive [lately]. He’s being a leader that we need, both him and Rok (Gustys).”
Looking ahead, Mihalich and the Pride are eager to do damage in a conference in which they were picked sixth, while often reminding everyone that the preseason favorite, North Carolina-Wilmington — which tied Hofstra for first-place (ending up with the two seed on a tiebreaker) before ousting the Pride in overtime in the CAA finals last season — was likewise selected sixth in the league a year ago.
“This team is special,” Wright-Foreman insisted. “We’ve got a lot of pieces to do a lot of good things.”
That feeling is a lot stronger among the Pride now, thanks to a very good ending to a previously up-and-down non-conference stretch.
“We feel good about ourselves right now,” Mihalich said. “All the things we needed to get out of non-conference play, we got out of it.
“A year ago, the team that won the regular season championship — we did — had eight wins [before conference play]. We were 8-4. This year, we’re 8-5, so we have the same amount of wins.”
And even the losses have helped Hofstra grow.
“From learning how to play against a really great team like Kentucky, from having a bad loss… it’s a good locker room right now,” Mihalich added. “One of our players said in the huddle [tonight], we’re getting it together, and this is the right time [for that].”