It may be a stretch to call a game a “must win” when a college basketball team is 1-1 in its league, after barely starting an 18-game conference schedule. But given the way its prior game ended and what soon lies ahead for the Hofstra Pride, Thursday night’s meeting with its Colonial Athletic Association rivals, the James Madison Dukes, sure felt like a win Hofstra (9-7, 1-2 CAA) had to get.
Perhaps that was the reason head coach Joe Mihalich seemed inconsolable after the Pride — with the lone exception of sophomore reserve guard Justin Wright Foreman — inexplicably failed to show up at home before leaving for a crucial three-game road trip that will start with a quick turnaround on Saturday, in Charleston, before concluding at defending CAA champion and conference favorite North Carolina-Wilmington.
“I was just incredibly disappointed with our lack of toughness tonight,” Mihalich said afterwards. “This game honors toughness and if you don’t have it, if you don’t play with it, if you lack it, then you won’t be successful.”
Following up his career-high 30 points in a heartbreaking overtime loss at home (on a buzzer-beating three-pointer) to William & Mary on Monday, Wright-Foreman led Hofstra with 25 points on 8-for-17 shooting (including 4-for-9 from 3-point range) in 29 minutes.
However, none of his teammates scored more than seven points as the rest of the Pride combined for just 28.1 percent shooting (9-for-32), including a season-worst 13.3 percent (2-for-15) from behind the arc in a disappointing 62-54 loss at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
Hofstra’s point total was not only a season low, but also more than 26 below the 80.1 points per game the Pride was averaging entering the game.
While the eight-point underdog Dukes (5-11, 3-0 CAA) didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard themselves, they did double Hofstra up in the paint, 32-16, and had three scorers — senior forward Satkus Paulius (13 points), senior guard Jackson Kent (11) and junior guard Joey McLean (10) — reach double figures.
James Madison’s victory was its fourth straight, after starting the season 1-11.
“I’m not surprised that this team is [3-0 in the CAA], I was more surprised they had a lack of success in [their] non-conference [schedule],” Mihalich said. “They’ve got terrific personnel. They might be as big and as strong as anybody in the league. They’re bigger, tougher, stronger, more physical [than us]. We’re none of those things right now.”
The Dukes — who were picked fifth in the CAA, one spot ahead of the Pride, kept their momentum going one game after beating Towson (picked second in the CAA) by 20 points.
JMU pulled in front early and kept forging ahead each time Hofstra battled back. After grabbing a 27-17 lead, with five minutes left in the opening half, the Dukes allowed the Pride to end the frame on a 16-6 run and tie the game, 33-33, by halftime.
Mihalich was forced to call a time out less than three minutes into the second half after JMU opened the stanza with the first seven points, only to have Hofstra answer with the next six, to close within 40-39.
Although the Pride twice stayed within five points, at 49-44 and 52-47, with 9:35 remaining, the Dukes scored the next six points and led by no less than the final margin thereafter, while increasing their advantage to as much as 62-49, with 2:06 left.
Hofstra, which came into the game allowing 76.4 points per contest, had primarily struggled defensively this season, while having few issues at the other end of the floor. Yet against a very active and energized JMU defense, the Pride’s main problems were on offense.
“When you say ‘toughness’ everybody thinks you’re talking about defense,” Mihalich explained. “It’s offense too. You have to take some contact, you have to be a little quicker [when making decisions with the ball]. “We had some shots that we normally make, we passed up some shots we should have taken and we had no toughness attacking the basket.
“I think we self-destructed attacking the basket eight times, maybe nine times, where three or four of our guys were driving to the basket and they lost the ball.”
Wright-Foreman added, “We just turned the ball over way too much. I had (a game-high) four turnovers (of Hofstra’s 14) myself… we didn’t have it tonight on either side of the ball… it’s fixable. We just have to practice and work hard.”
Mihalich’s team also couldn’t take advantage when the Dukes had their two starting bigs — Satkus and senior forward Tom Vodanovich (six points, all in the second half) — go to the bench with 12:04 to play.
That was right after Satkus’ fourth personal foul came as a result of a technical foul, which gave Hofstra a pair of technical free throws that cut JMU’s lead to 47-41.
But instead of rallying for another tie or a lead of its own while Satkus and Vodanovich were spectators, the Pride fell behind even further and could never recover.
“I don’t think they were replacing [Satkus and Vodanovich] with bums,” Mihalich said. “(Senior forward Yohanny) Dalembert (three points, six rebounds) started all last year.”
Mihalich’s somewhat valid point aside, the Pride probably should have been able to cut into the deficit — instead of allowing the game to get away — with the Dukes in serious foul trouble.
Recalling Hofstra’s excruciating ending against William & Mary, Mihalich said, “That game should have made us want to play harder and be tougher, and play angry, and we didn’t do that. At this point, I’m embarrassed by that.”
Another sparse crowd, of just 1,059 — dipping the Pride’s average home attendance to 1,656, less than one-third of The Mack’s capacity — didn’t help either.
“Let’s face it, there’s no atmosphere here,” Mihalich said. “There’s nobody here at the games, so that factors in a little bit… but we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves for the lack of toughness and the lack of a sense of playing angry.”
So how does Mihalich — facing the sudden prospect of going from a single defensive stop away from starting 2-0 in the CAA, to possibly returning from a difficult upcoming road trip at 1-5, one-third into the conference schedule — get the Pride to bounce back and overachieve away from home after underachieving on its own floor this week?
“I’ll be thinking all night about that,” Mihalich said. “I wish I could tell you, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ I don’t know. It takes some soul searching here, but the players are going to have to decide they don’t like this.
“I know how I feel. My only prayer for the night is they feel the same way, that they’re as angry as I am, they’re as frustrated as I am and they want to do something about it.”
One way or another, Mihalich is bound to return home knowing a lot more about the Pride. And he’ll see if after struggling at home, whether Hofstra can use the adversity in a positive way, to band together and recover with a good road trip.
“That’s what good teams do,” he said. “We’re gonna find out if we’re a good team.”