It should have been the night when the Hofstra Pride finally got back on track and earned a victory for the first time in 2017.
But as has often been the case for Hofstra (9-11) this season, while its offense was good enough to win, the Pride’s defense failed again in an 86-80 Colonial Athletic Association loss to the Towson Tigers (11-9) at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
Down 16 points late in the first half, then falling behind by one, after rallying for an 11-point second-half lead, Towson (3-4 CAA) — which had taken only one foul shot over the first 17 minutes of the second half — made all 12 of its free throw attempts while closing the final 2:41 on a 14-7 run.
Leading the Pride (1-6 CAA) — which has lost six straight games after completing non-conference play 9-4 and winning its CAA opener at Delaware on New Year’s Eve — was a trio of guards, who collectively, accounted for 78.8 percent of Hofstra’s scoring.
Freshman Eli Pemberton scored a career-high 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting (including 5-of-8 from 3-point range), while senior Deron Powers added 19 points (on 6-of-12 shooting) and sophomore Justin Wright-Foreman had 18 (on 6-of-10 shooting).
That group helped the Pride very consistently score 40 points on 48 percent shooting in each half.
However, as usual, it was the other end of the floor that plagued Hofstra, which allowed 54 second-half points on 56 percent shooting (19-for-34) after limiting Towson to 32 first-half points on 41 percent shooting.
While the Pride was able to keep the Tigers’ top two scorers — senior forward Arnaud William Adala Moto (14 points, five rebounds) and junior guard Mike Morsell (four points in 16 minutes) — in check, Towson held a tremendous 50-4 edge in bench scoring, led by three reserves who each scored above their season averages.
As the Tigers’ third-leading scorer (with 11.2 points per game), senior forward John Davis’ 14 points weren’t much of a surprise, but career-bests from two role players, freshman guard Zane Martin (23 points on 9-of-14 shooting) and redshirt sophomore guard Jordan McNeil (13 points on 5-of-8 shooting) — each of whom entered the night scoring just 3.1 points per game — amounted to a highly unpredictable difference in the final outcome.
“They got a chance and they produced,” credited Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich.
Towson’s physicality and size also overwhelmed Hofstra, as the Tigers outscored the Pride 48-34 in the paint and outmuscled Hofstra on the glass, 39-26 (including 14-9 on the offensive boards).
Taking advantage of Towson having two starters with two fouls each just 3:19 into the game, and two other starters picking up two fouls each less than four minutes later, the Pride went on a 21-6 run to open the biggest lead of the game, 32-16, on a Powers jumper with 6:46 left in the opening half.
The Tigers then stormed back with the next 13 points before Hofstra immediately answered with seven consecutive points, to push the margin to 39-29, before settling for a 40-32 halftime advantage.
Disappointed his team didn’t take better advantage of the period after which Towson was forced to send some foul-plagued players to its bench earlier than planned, Powers said, “That lead should have just grew. When they went out of the game, we didn’t handle that well.”
Trailing 46-38, the Tigers went on a 28-9 spurt over a span of about seven minutes, to lead, 66-55, on a McNeil 3-pointer with 8:37 left. They finished the run by making 12 consecutive shots.
“I don’t even know how they started coming back,” Powers said. “I don’t know how we lost that lead.”
Mihalich, though, had some ideas of exactly how it happened.
“We had that one stretch [when] they scored [on] 12 possessions in a row,” he noted. “We took some bad shots, we turned the ball over [and that] turned into transition baskets, and some of the missed shots turned into transition baskets.”
Responding with an 18-6 run of its own, the Hofstra seized some momentum and briefly regained the lead, but Towson was too good at the foul line, where the Tigers shot 21-for-22 overall while the Pride went just 16-for-25, with starting junior center Rokas Gustys (a 25-percent free throw shooter this season) going 0-for-6.
“We had a lot of fight,” Mihalich said. “We had enough fight to get a lead. The feeling wasn’t great… with [about] 2:40 to go, we’re up one, and to their credit, they made the plays [and] foul shots down the stretch.”
The loss started a key stretch of five home dates in six games for Hofstra, which was picked sixth in the CAA, but which fell into a last-place tie with Delaware, which stunned third-place Northeastern (the Pride’s next opponent, at home on Saturday) at home while Towson was winning at The Mack.
Hofstra’s current losing streak started in heartbreaking fashion on its own floor, when William & Mary beat the Pride on a long, buzzer-beating, overtime 3-pointer on Jan. 2. Hofstra, which had been playing well for a few games until that moment, has seemingly not been able to recover from such a deflating defeat.
“I think our energy level dropped off and I think it’s been hard for us to get it back,” Powers admitted. “That shot hurt, but I can’t tell you why, what made our energy level drop off a little bit. Maybe that [shot] could have been the thing that did it, but I’m not really sure.”
Comparing another typically sparse home crowd (of just 1,331 fans in Hofstra’s 5,023-seat arena) to that for his team’s prior game (a loss at first-place, conference favorite North Carolina-Wilmington), Mihalich said, “It’s tough to get energy in this building. I just call it like it is. We just played at Wilmington and there were 5,000 people there. That’s an energized place right there.”
Yet Mihalich didn’t use that as an excuse and kept looking forward despite the Pride’s mounting losses.
“I feel like we’re really, really close,” he said. “I know close isn’t good enough, but… you don’t win this thing in January, you don’t lose it in January. We’re close. We’ve got to keep getting better and try to build some momentum.
“I’m still optimistic. I’m obviously upset at the fact that we’re not winning, but I’m not down and I’m not going to let these guys get down either… one of the things we’ve got to do is block out the noise and stay focused on us.”
Pemberton added, “[Being] 1-6 [in the CAA] doesn’t leave us in a good place, but we’ve got to stay optimistic and just focus on the things we can get better [at] and how [to] get better. It’s kind of hard to stay optimistic, but we’ve got to go into the next game even harder… we’ve just got to pull together as one.”
And maybe even find ways to get some wins before getting too much further into the new calendar year.