HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The outlook for the Hofstra Pride men’s basketball season has become so fickle this season, it sometimes changes by a large degree based on only a single game.
Reflecting on his team’s 81-67 loss to the first-place Northeastern Huskies at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night, head coach Joe Mihalich admitted, “We’re disappointed in the outcome. We’ve got to tip our hats to Northeastern. They’re playing really well right now. [They have] great balance, a lot of guys that can hurt you… it’s a very, very good team. You’ve got to play well to beat that team, and we didn’t.”
Yet Mihalich intimated that his assessment of Hofstra’s play might have been very different prior to tipoff than it was after the final buzzer, which marked the midpoint of the Pride’s 18-game Colonial Athletic Association schedule.
“If you had asked me that three hours ago, I’d have said, ‘You know what, I think we’re playing pretty good even though we got bumped by Charleston (during a tough, six-point road loss in Hofstra’s prior game).’ That’s a really good team. We played good down there… three hours ago, I’d have said, ‘We’re playing as good as all the other teams in the league. I don’t know who the best team is, but we’re right there with them.’ But we’ve got a bad taste in our mouths tonight.”
How quickly the perceptions can change for a Hofstra team which 23 days after posting an impressive one-point win in Boston, was seeking a season series sweep over Northeastern (14-7, 7-2 CAA) and a possible three-way tie for first-place with the Huskies and William & Mary.
Instead, Northeastern won its fourth straight game to sit alone atop the CAA, while Hofstra (12-9, 5-4 CAA) dropped into tie with Towson for fourth-place in the conference, just one game ahead of the next three teams in the standings.
While the Pride’s leading scorer — junior guard Justin Wright-Foreman — led Hofstra again (with 20 points), he missed his first six shots en route to a tough 6-for-21 night and received little help outside of 13 points (on 6-for-6 shooting) and a team-high 10 rebounds from senior center Rokas Gustys.
“I just didn’t hit shots,” Wright-Foreman insisted. “It wasn’t anything that [the Huskies] were really doing.”
Overall, the Pride shot just 39.1 percent (25-for-64) and went only 4-for-20 from 3-point range, while missing its first nine 3-point attempts before Wright-Foreman made Hofstra’s last shot from behind the arc late in the opening half.
The Huskies’ adeptness at stopping that shot had a lot to do with the Pride’s struggles from long distance.
“They’re very good at that,” Mihalich said. “It’s the best thing they do, is defend the 3-point field goal attempts. Only a couple teams have taken more than 15 [3s] in a game against them [this season]. They really get out there. I thought we had some good looks in the first half that we normally make… that’s something that we normally do pretty well. I think you have to credit their defense for that.”
Even with Gustys doing his usual good job on the glass, Hofstra was also severely hurt on the boards, 40-25, which helped Northeastern hold an 8-1 edge in second-chance points.
In contrast to the Pride falling into the trap of standing around and watching Wright-Foreman too often, the Huskies shared the ball well, running their offense through Serbian redshirt junior guard Vasa Pusica, who despite a game-worst eight turnovers, had a game-best 10 assists.
Pusica and sophomore forward Shawn Occeus led Northeastern with 16 points apiece, while sophomore guard Brace Bolden (who had a game-high 12 points in the first half and 10 rebounds) and junior center Anthony Green (game-high 12 rebounds) each had 14 points, and redshirt sophomore guard Donnell Gresham Jr. added 11 points.
After falling behind 5-0 and 12-6, Hofstra responded with eight straight points, to take its only lead, 14-12, but Northeastern scored eight consecutive points of its own, to lead for good, 24-16. The Pride drew within 31-29, but the Huskies took a 36-30 lead into the locker room and doubled that margin in the second half, at 49-37 and 57-45.
Seven straight points (on Wright-Foreman’s first three free throws of the game, followed by a Wright-Foreman layup and a Gustys steal and dunk) brought Hofstra to within 57-52.
With the crowd energized, freshman guard Jaylen Ray (two points in 24 minutes) had a good look on a 3-point try to get the Pride even closer, but he missed with 8:44 left.
“Right guy shooting it, good shot, just didn’t go down,” Mihalich said.
Occeus answered with a left-wing 3-pointer to start a 9-2 run that Green ended with a jumper to extend Northeastern’s lead to 66-54 with 4:28 remaining. The Huskies’ advantage never dropped below eight points thereafter and was the highest by the final margin.
“To their credit, they kept their composure and their poise,” Mihalich said of the Huskies.
Gustys wasn’t sure why Hofstra — which has shown an ability to play very well at times and underachieve at others in the CAA this season — couldn’t duplicate the type of result it had against Northeastern on Jan 2, but he offered the Pride’s earlier win over the Huskies as a reason which might have fired up the current best team in the league.
“Maybe because we beat them at their place, they played harder and were more motivated to play against us here,” Gustys posited.
Although he’d like to see more consistency from his team, Mihalich believes the CAA will ultimately remain very competitive during the second half of the conference schedule, with the Pride staying in the mix among the CAA’s best teams.
“Who knows?” he asked. “Maybe Northeastern will win the rest of their games and finish up 16-2 (in the CAA), but everything kind of points to one of those years where at the end, there’s going to be a bunch of teams with the same record, [with] a lot of ties, and the league office is going to have to figure out a lot of tiebreaker situations, I think. But we’ll see.”
That’s entirely possible. However, to end up in a position Hofstra would like to be in by that time, the Pride may not be able to let too many more good opportunities pass by without taking advantage of them.