Trying to turn the page on a dismal and frustrating January, head coach Joe Mihalich expected his Hofstra Pride to begin the month of February with great urgency.
Yet it still took a fiery halftime demonstration from Mihalich to finally get the Pride (11-13) to wake up and rally for a 73-65 win over the Delaware Blue Hens (9-15) in a matchup of Colonial Athletic Association cellar dwellers at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
After starting its CAA schedule with a New Year’s Eve win at last-place Delaware (2-9 CAA), Hofstra (3-8 CAA) was hoping to correct its woes after dropping eight of nine games last month.
But that didn’t happen for a while.
Instead, the Blue Hens scored the first five points, and yielded the next 10 to the Pride, before going on a 28-9 surge, to lead, 33-19, before settling for a 35-24 halftime lead.
By then, Delaware was shooting 50 percent (16-for-32) from the field to the Hofstra’s 29.6 percent (8-for-27), while holding a sizable 23-13 rebounding advantage.
But behind junior center Hunter Sabety (who in his second Division I start, recorded his first double-double at that level with D-I career highs of 14 points and 15 rebounds, including nine points and 10 boards in the second half) and sophomore guard Justin Wright-Foreman (who scored 15 of his game-high 22 points after halftime), the Pride turned the tables.
Outscoring Delaware 49-30 after the break, Hofstra shot 50 percent both overall (14-for-28) and from 3-point range (6-for-12), and held the Blue Hens to 36.4 percent shooting (12-for-33), while grabbing 18 of the first 24 second-half rebounds en route to a 23-14 edge on the glass in the half.
According to Mihalich, much of the difference simply came down to effort.
“It felt like two different games, the first half and second half,” he said. “We just didn’t play hard in the first half. That’s all we talked about at halftime. We didn’t talk about X’s and O’s [or], ‘Run this offense, play this defense.’ We talked about playing hard.
“When you play hard and you work hard, and have some toughness to you, you can be a good team. This game honors toughness and we weren’t tough in the first half, and the in the second half, we were.”
Wright-Foreman noted the extra motivation provided by Mihalich at halftime.
“I can’t even,” he said, interrupting himself before adding, “There’s no words for that. We went to the locker room, chairs were flying,” he said with a laugh, turning to look at Mihalich.
With a wry smile, Mihalich answered, “I don’t remember that.”
Taking a more serious tone, Wright-Foreman added, “We got together and we really played as a team in the second half. The first half [we were] way too slow, but the second half, we got together and pulled it out.”
Sabety said, “In the locker room, at halftime, we really spoke to each other, we were really trying to get in each other’s heads, and tell each other, ‘It’s now or never, we’ve got to really do it in the second half because the first half wasn’t really there.”
Whatever the other halftime messages were, they were well received, as the Pride made its first four 3-pointers of the second half while starting the stanza on an 18-9 run over the first 4:17 of the half to get within 44-42.
A Sabety dunk with 14 minutes left put Hofstra up for good, 46-44, and only 54 seconds later, the Pride, ahead 48-44, had already during the second half, matched its first-half scoring output.
Filling in nicely for Hofstra’s leading rebounder — injured junior center Rokas Gustys — Sabety had long been ready to shine in his 32 minutes.
“Me and Rok battle each other in practice every day, so I knew whenever I had the opportunity, I knew I was going to be able to step [up],” said the 21-year-old Sabety, who after playing at Division III Tufts (MA), is now taking masters courses at Hofstra, where he graduated in December.
Mihalich added, “You’re going to get an opportunity, it’s what you do with your opportunity, and Hunter took advantage of it.”
Two more dunks by the energetic and powerful, 6-foot-9, 290-pound Sabety, after a 3-pointer from Justin Wright-Foreman, helped the Pride (which had all five starters score in double figures) push its lead to 59-48 with 7:52 remaining.
“We just fed off of [Sabety] because he brought the energy to the game,” Wright-Foreman said.
While he was likewise happy with Sabety’s play, Mihalich also had praise for Wright-Foreman (Hofstra’s leading scorer this season).
“There have been some great scorers on that floor, (former NBA draft picks) Charles Jenkins, Speedy Claxton… [Wright-Foreman] might be in that line,” Mihalich said. “He hasn’t gotten there yet, but he might be… but I was [telling him] all week long, ‘Be a great player, not just a great scorer,’ and I thought his defense tonight [was great].”
Before Wright-Foreman and Sabety led Hofstra back, Mihalich was puzzled to see his team inexplicably start flat.
“We had a really good week of practice,” Mihalich explained. “We talked about carrying that over and playing that way in the game, and it was the opposite [of that] in the first half, but the second half, that’s how we practiced.”
Eager to begin a new month, Mihalich said, “I thought we were at rock bottom coming into the game. We had to look up and see the snake’s belly, but we responded.
“Maybe the moral of the story was the first half was January and the second half is February, because January… we were so glad to rip that page out of the calendar and throw it away. It’s February, it’s a new month, and that’s when you’ve got to be good. If you want to be good (for the postseason) in March, you’ve got to be good in February.”
So far, so good on that note for a team that despite sweeping its two game season series against one last-place team — before ending a season-long, three-game homestand against another, Drexel (2-9 CAA), on Saturday night — is only 1-8 against the rest of the conference.
What could help turn that around, even when Gustys is healthy again, is Sabety continuing to take steps forward when given the chance.
While he was glad with own his career night, Sabety viewed the Hofstra’s big second half as a possible springboard to bigger things for the Pride.
“It feels good, but a win feels better, for the team,” he said. “We know we’re gonna really bounce off this and you’re gonna see us come out there like crazy on Saturday.”