All year long, the Hofstra Pride’s season has been defined by a pair of mantras.
One is “It’s all about three days in March.” The other is trying not to be “on the wrong side of close.”
Experiencing a new way to once again be “on the wrong side of close” might have cost Hofstra its last realistic chance at making sure “it’s all about three days in March” instead of four days in March.
With a chance to simultaneously make a push at securing a first-round bye in next month’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament and a statement during its final homestand of the season — against the Colonial Athletic Association’s top two teams — Hofstra (13-15, 5-10 CAA) cut a 15-point, second-half deficit and had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds against the second-place Charleston Cougars (20-8, 11-4 CAA).
But what appeared to be a foul on a go-ahead 3-point attempt by the Pride’s best scorer — sophomore guard Justin Wright-Foreman (game-high 26 points) — wasn’t called, as Hofstra’s valiant rally fell short in a damaging 76-72 loss at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
The defeat was a missed opportunity for the Pride, which fell one spot, into a tie for eighth-place, when a win would have moved Hofstra only one game behind sixth-place Northeastern (7-8 CAA) — which currently holds the final spot for a first-round CAA bye — with three to play.
An 11-4 run gave the Pride a short-lived 31-26 lead with 3:54 left in the first half, but the Cougars scored the next nine points and closed the frame on a 14-3 spurt, to lead at halftime, 40-34.
“At 31-26, it’s just sticking in my head, and we just had a bad stretch right there,” head coach Joe Mihalich recalled. “We had three careless possessions that we didn’t have for the first 16 minutes… and that gave [the Cougars] the momentum they needed.”
After Hofstra was able to stay within five points, Charleston went on another streak — scoring 10 straight points – to take the game’s biggest lead, 64-49, with 8:41 remaining.
But a furious 23-9 stretch brought the Pride to within 73-72, with 16.4 seconds left, on a 3-pointer from senior guard Brian Bernardi, who scored 21 points exclusively on seven 3-pointers (in 12 attempts), just one shy of his own school record.
Redshirt junior Joe Chealey (team-high 18 points) answered with only the front end of two free throws, leaving the door open for Hofstra to win or tie on what ended up as its final possession.
Out of a time out, junior center Rokas Gustys (16 points, game-high 12 rebounds) set a right-wing pick for Wright-Foreman, who then dribbled left, to the top of the arc, where a he tried a step-back 3-pointer for the lead.
Sophomore forward Nick Harris, at 6-foot-10, used all of his long reach to challenge Wright-Foreman. Replays showed that in doing so, Harris didn’t touch the ball, but rather hit the shooting arm of Wright-Foreman, whose shot with just under five seconds left, ended up being an airball, which Bernardi unsuccessfully tried to gather, as the ball went out of bounds off of him with only one-tenth of a second to play.
“Rok set a great screen,” Mihalich said. “We got the right guy with the ball, we got the right shot up. I haven’t seen the tape, but I think the tape will show that [Wright-Foreman] got fouled. But I’ll let Justin tell you if he got fouled.”
Answering Mihalich affirmatively, Wright-Foreman said, “I got fouled. Clearly, [Harris] hit me on my wrist.”
Hearing those words, Gustys, with a smile of frustrated disbelief, merely shook his head while continuing to look down and peruse the final stat sheet.
Instead of Wright-Foreman shooting three free throws, Harris was credited with one of his two blocks (the only two the Cougars recorded).
Head coach Joe Mihalich received a technical foul for arguing the no-call, which gave Charleston a couple of meaningless free throws to close the scoring and rub more salt in the latest of Hofstra’s painful late-game wounds.
It was the seventh time Mihalich’s team lost a conference game this season that was there for the taking in the final moments, including a loss at Charleston by a nearly identical 77-71 score on Jan. 7.
Getting almost no scoring from its second and third-leading scorers, respectively — freshman guard Eli Pemberton and senior guard Deron Powers – might kept the Pride from getting over the top this time.
Pemberton missed all five of his field goal attempts and scored just one point while Powers went 1-for-5 and scored only two points, even though he posted a game-high 11 assists.
That duo’s lack of scoring didn’t seem to bother Mihalich much, however.
“If you tell me we’re going to get 72 points, I’m going to tell you we have a chance to win the game,” he said. “However you get ‘em, you get ‘em… Deron and Elijah, we didn’t get much [scoring] help from them, but I thought they did some other things.”
While disappointed by the referees’ decisions at the end, Mihalich focused elsewhere. “It wasn’t the last shot,” he said. “It was probably a lot of other things that [we’d] like to have back, but I’m proud of this team.”
Ever optimistic despite the realization that Hofstra will most likely not get to skip the opening round as a now probable bottom four seed, Mihalich is focusing more on the Pride’s improved play and 3-2 record this month after a 1-8 mark last month.
“We had a stretch there in January where whatever could go wrong, went wrong, and that’s the way it goes,” Mihalich said. “You’ve got to deal with that. Rok missed a bunch of games (four) with injury, we had guys being sick, we got beat by a buzzer beater, we missed a tip-in to win a game, that’s life… you’re gonna go through those stretches, but it’s how you deal with those stretches. The fact that we’ve come back in February and played the way we’ve played, I think it shows a lot about our team.”
Hofstra’s late rally gave Mihalich even more cause for optimism.
“I thought our guys showed a lot of fight,” he said. “We didn’t play the smartest game in the world. Defensively, we were poor guarding the basketball, but to have a shot at the end of the game, to win, against one of the two best teams in the league, says a lot about these guys.”
The other one of the two teams Mihalich referenced — first-place North Carolina-Wilmington (12-3 CAA) — will visit The Mack in Hofstra’s home finale on Saturday before the Pride go on the road for its last two regular season games.
Staying close yet again despite another loss has the Pride remaining confident that it might no longer be “on the wrong side of close” at just the right time, when Hofstra will trying to make an unlikely Cinderella run through the CAA tournament during the first weekend in March.
“It shows that we can win,” Mihalich insisted. “We know that. We’re right there. That’s what Brian Bernardi was saying to all the guys in the locker room… eliminate a couple of bonehead plays here and there, and do a little better job guarding the basketball, and we’re gonna be on the right side of close.”
And then, maybe they’ll even get some calls too, if they need them.