Forget trying to salvage the end of an awful month with a rare win. Hofstra Pride head coach Joe Mihalich had trouble simply trying to keep enough healthy and effective bodies on the floor on Saturday.
Hanging around for longer than expected with sans two key starters, the Pride (10-13) ultimately compounded Mihalich’s worries by getting into foul trouble, as the Elon Phoenix (14-9) eventually wore Hofstra down to earn an 84-70 Colonial Athletic Association win at the Mack Sports Complex.
Missing its best rebounder (junior center Rokas Gustys) and second-leading scorer (freshman Eli Pemberton), Hofstra (2-8 CAA) stayed within one point of Elon (6-4 CAA), with under seven minutes remaining, before the Phoenix put the game away with a 16-5 run to move into a third-place tie in the conference while dropping the Pride into a tie for last place.
Although Hofstra was able to turn an 11-point deficit, seconds after halftime, into a four-point lead less than eight minutes into the second half, the Pride couldn’t keep up down the stretch while playing only seven players, with only five of them entering the scoring column.
One of the scoreless players for Hofstra, junior forward Ty Greer (22 minutes), fouled out with 10:57 left and Elon clinging to a slim 56-55 lead.
That put even more pressure on the Pride, whose leading scorer, sophomore guard Justin Wright-Foreman — one of two guards (along with senior Brian Bernardi) to lead Hofstra with 20 points — was forced to the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 13:25 to play and the Pride up, 50-49.
“I worried about foul trouble and sure enough, we had nothing but foul trouble,” Mihalich said. “We had no room for error. Our margin for error was very slim with those two guys (Gustys and Pemberton) down. You get into foul trouble, it gets even slimmer.”
Wright-Foreman sat out for more than six minutes, returning just after redshirt junior forward Brian Dawkins moved the Phoenix ahead to stay, 62-60, on a layup with 7:50 to go.
“I got a little cold on the bench,” Wright-Foreman admitted, trying not to use his extended second-half break as an excuse.
“I came up short,” added Wright-Foreman, who scored just four points after subbing back in down the stretch.
After getting torched for 14 3-pointers on 27 attempts, while allowing a season-worst 96 points (matched only by fourth-ranked Kentucky) in a loss at Elon on Jan. 12, Hofstra limited the Phoenix to just 7-of-21 shooting from behind the arc, but was dominated in the paint, 40-22.
That difference was in large part due to very similar production from a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards, who took turns doing damage in each half.
Sophomore Tyler Seibring shot 9-for-13 while scoring 15 of his game-high 23 points (two short of his season and career-highs) in the second half, while Dawkins scored a career-high 22 points (16 in the opening half) on 9-of-14 shooting.
It didn’t help the Pride that Gustys’ backup, 6-foot-9, 290-pound junior center Hunter Sabety (11 points, five rebounds) was limited to just 24 minutes after being called for two fouls within the first 4:15 of the game and was benched for the remainder of the first half.
Even when Sabety was in the game, he and his teammates struggled to contain Dawkins and Seibring.
“We had trouble guarding the big guy (Dawkins),” Mihalich said. “He was hard guy to guard. We had Hunter out there and I thought Dawkins took advantage of that matchup a little bit because he can drive it and he can shoot it too… Hunter played hard but it was a tough matchup for him.”
Still, Mihalich was proud of the effort his shorthanded team gave before finally succumbing.
Noting the much better job the Pride did with guarding the 3-point line, yet conceding too much in the paint the second time around against Elon this season, Mihalich added, “They found our Achilles heel. They’re a good offensive team. Nobody knows about Elon [around here]. They’re not exactly a household name in this area, but it’s a good team and they can really score. They have five guys that can shoot [and they present] a lot of tough matchups.
“I’m proud of the way we defended their perimeter guys, who killed us last time, but this time they found a weakness in the other two areas. Seibring had his way with whoever was guarding him and so did Dawkins.”
Maintaining his optimism, Mihalich looked ahead while gladly bidding adieu to a month in which Hofstra — after going 9-5 in its non-conference schedule and starting CAA play with a win at Delaware on the final day of 2016 — lost eight of nine games, including two in the final seconds of overtime and three others which came down to the final minute.
“At times like this, I remember (legendary football coach) Lou Holtz saying something like ‘Don’t talk to people about your problems because half the people don’t care and the other half is glad you have them,” Mihalich said.
“So we’ve got guys hurt, and we’ve got some guys not playing well. We’re going to have to correct that and I hope we get some guys healthy. I’m glad January’s over.”
Focusing on first-place North Carolina-Wilmington (9-1 CAA) and second-place Charleston (8-2 CAA) separating themselves from everyone else in the conference (6-4 or worse), and the Pride’s several close losses within the league this season, Mihalich continued, “With all due respect to everybody we played, we don’t feel like there’s a team we can’t beat.
“I think the league is shaking out to be two teams that are a little bit better than everybody else and then eight teams that are, just throw a blanket over [them]. They’re all the same.”
That message was repeated in the locker room following Hofstra’s latest defeat.
Mihalich described, “I just said to the guys, ‘January’s over, thank goodness. You don’t win a championship in January. You don’t lose it either. Let’s get good in February so we can be good for one weekend in March.’
“Last year, we were the best team in the league (as CAA regular season co-champions and the top seed in the conference tournament)… and it was the same challenge: win three games in March,” Mihalich added. “This year will be the same thing. Can we be good enough by March to win three games? I think we can. I really do.”
While the belief is certainly there, it will take a more than that for the Pride to make Mihalich prophetic, just as it may take more than winning “three games in March.”
Only the top six teams in the CAA will receive a first-round bye during the conference tournament in March. The bottom four schools will be forced to traverse the extremely unenviable task of having to win four games in four days to capture a CAA tournament title and the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth.
At the moment, Hofstra is one of those teams, sitting three games behind sixth-place Towson with eight conference games left to play.
But as Mihalich said with relief, looking ahead to concluding a season-long, three-game homestand with a pair of home games next week, at least January’s over.