Sophomore guard Justin Wright-Foreman did all he could to help the Hofstra Pride avoid a disappointing repeat of its prior game and help his team win for the first time in 2017.
Yet despite matching his career-high with 30 points (on 11-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range, while going 4-of-5 at the foul line), Wright-Foreman still needed some help to keep Hofstra (10-11) from blowing a 16-point lead for the second straight time and losing a seventh consecutive game.
Luckily for the Pride, senior guard Deron Powers’ three-point play with 17.6 seconds left sealed Hofstra’s 78-73 Colonial Athletic Association win over the third-place Northeastern Huskies (12-8, 5-3 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
“Great win,” head coach Joe Mihalich said afterwards. “Feels like a while, probably because it’s been a while since we got this done.”
Unlike in its previous game — a six-point home loss to Towson, after Hofstra led by 16 points late in the first half — the eighth-place Pride (2-6 CAA) didn’t build an advantage by the same margin until a Wright-Foreman 3-pointer gave Hofstra a 62-46 lead with 11:28 remaining.
So was the Pride thinking about the loss to Towson as Northeastern went on a 25-11 run to get as close as 73-71, with 46.2 seconds left?
“No, because it’s just one play at a time,” Mihalich said. “We’ve gotta practice what we preach… teams are gonna make runs. It’s hard to stay up 16.”
Wright-Foreman added, “Not really,” in echoing Mihalich’s thoughts of whether he and other players on the floor had a “here-we-go-again” mentality. “Even though we have a habit of doing that (coughing up big leads)… [we’re] optimistic about everything. So we didn’t even worry about that, we just played.”
Before Hofstra could build its big lead, the Pride had to first show resiliency after a slow start.
Down 9-2 less than four minutes in, Hofstra used a 35-20 spurt to go up, 37-29, with just under three minutes left before halftime, before settling for a 41-32 lead at the break — another reminder of the Towson game, when the Pride very similarly led 40-32 at intermission.
A couple of things aided Hofstra in creating its big lead and hanging on this time.
One was a season-high 2,629 fans in attendance (more than half of The Mack’s capacity) after Mihalich had complained of the Pride’s home arena lacking energy in a few other games this season.
“Today was great,” Mihalich said. “It makes a big difference… it really helps. We’re very appreciative of that.”
More importantly for Mihalich, Hofstra got its starting shooting guard, senior 3-point specialist Brian Bernardi, back on track.
A 41.8 percent 3-point shooter as a freshman with SMU, Bernardi shot 40.4 percent from behind the arc the following year for Hofstra, before shooting 38.8 percent from that range last year and dipping to 35.5. percent this season.
But his 16 points (11 in the first half, only two fewer then Wright-Foreman’s game-high 13 points at halftime), on 5-of-12 shooting (including 4-of-10 from 3-point range), were crucial in allowing the Pride to build a comfortable enough lead to hold off the Huskies.
“I don’t know if Brian would mind me sharing this with you, but I will,” Mihalich said. “I met with him yesterday and he was near tears… I think he was feeling pressure, I think he was feeling stressed, and I always like to use a line that Julius Erving used: ‘You only feel pressure if they ask you to do something you can’t do.’
“I told Brian, ‘Just like Julius Erving, when you play basketball, it’s what you do best. Just relax and go do it.’ Julius Erving used to say, ‘Ask me to fly an airplane, I’m gonna feel pressure. I don’t know how to do that.’ We’ve just got to remind Brian to relax and play basketball because that’s what he does.”
As the only Hofstra player besides Wright-Foreman to score in double figures, Bernardi’s scoring canceled out the 16 points from junior guard Devon Begley, who complemented a team-high 25 points from the CAA’s leading scorer, senior guard T.J. Williams, and graduate forward Alex Murphy’s 18 points.
Led by Wright-Foreman and Bernardi, the Pride shot a blistering 61.5 percent (16-for-26) in the opening half and 54.9 percent (28-for-51) for the game.
One year after totaling 44 points over his entire freshman season, Wright-Foreman’s performance made him Hofstra’s leading scorer this year (with 14.5 points per game) while averaging only the fifth-most minutes on the team.
While the numbers show drastic differences from one season to the next for Wright-Foreman, the signs of him breaking out as a scorer were evident in team practices last year.
“Even coming into the season, even last year, we knew he was a great scorer, and I think he’s finally filling that role as [our primary] scorer,” Powers said of Wright-Foreman.
Wright-Foreman added, “I feel really comfortable. My teammates believe in me, my coaches believe in me. It just gives me more confidence to shoot the ball and help the team win in any way I can.”
A big jumper by Wright-Foreman gave Hofstra a 73-68 lead with 1:03 to play just before Northeastern answered with a 3-pointer.
However, it still took Powers (Hofstra’s third-leading scorer this year) to ultimately get the Pride back in the win column for the first time since Hofstra’s CAA opener at Delaware on New Year’s Eve.
Keeping Northeastern from having a chance to force overtime or win on a possible final possession, Powers (seven points, six assists, three turnovers) came through. With the shot clock running down, he drove down the lane for a tough layup through traffic. Powers also drew the foul and made the ensuing free throw to give Hofstra a 76-71 lead.
“I just came off the screen and I just saw the lane open up, and I just took it,” Powers explained. “Nobody was in front of me, so I just took it to the basket.”
A Murphy layup made it a one possession game again, but two free throws from freshman guard Eli Pemberton (nine points) — the player Wright-Foreman passed for the season team scoring lead — with 4.3 seconds left closed the scoring.
At that point, the Pride could finally exhale for the first time in more than three weeks.
“It’s an incredible relief because this is all about winning,” Mihalich said. “That’s why you play the game, that’s why you keep score. I felt like we were playing really hard — not great all the time, we were making our mistakes, we had our bad stretches — but 44 seconds to go, down three (on Jan. 14) at (first-place North Carolina-)Wilmington (8-0 in the CAA), and we had four of those six games like that.
“So to come away with nothing to show for your efforts, was frustrating, and now we can just take a deep breath and know that we can win every game.”
To get to that point, Hofstra had to keep noting that it wasn’t far from victory in most of its losses and continue believing that its next win would come soon, using the series of close losses as valuable lessons from which to learn and grow as a team.
“[My staff and I] told [the players,] all through the tough times, ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do,’ and going through those tough times is the reason we won today,” Mihalich said. “Going through those tough times will be the reason we keep on winning. It either makes you or breaks you. It didn’t break us.
“We knew how close we were… we were on the wrong side of ‘close.’ I’m really proud of this team. It’s a great win.”
Now that the losing streak has ended, the Pride figures it can get back to being itself, playing without the type of pressure it was under before.
“I think it gives us our confidence back,” Powers said. “I think it lets us take a little breath and just relax now… we just have to keep the same momentum moving into the next couple of games.”
That will be Thursday, at Drexel, before Hofstra returns home to start a season-long, three-game homestand.