The Hofstra University Pride was introduced to its home crowd at the Mack Sports Complex as the “Hofstra College Flying Dutchmen” and wore crisp-looking replicas of the uniforms the program wore in the 1950s in celebration of its Throwback Thursday night on the first evening of a key month of February, which by the time it ends, will sort out a highly competitive and muddled Colonial Athletic Association.
Even Hofstra’s longtime, beloved mascot lions, Kate and Willy, were unconventionally decked out in ‘50s style gear, including a Fonzie-styled black leather jacket and pink poodle skirt.
However, there was nothing old-fashioned about Hofstra’s style of play as the Pride (14-9, 7-4 CAA) took full advantage of a more modern-day pace and rules by forcing the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks (7-16, 4-7 CAA) into an up-tempo game while going a sizzling 64.7 percent (11-for-17) from 3-point range in a 96-76 rout.
Hofstra’s victory moved the Pride into a third-place tie with Northeastern two nights before a showdown with preseason conference favorite Charleston (8-3 CAA), which is tied with William & Mary for the CAA lead.
Normally relying heavily on the CAA’s leading scorer, junior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra used a more balanced approach to score 48 points in each half and shoot a scorching 63 percent (34-for-54) from the floor in exploiting a Seahawks team which ranked last in in the conference in points allowed (83.5 per game).
The Pride also held a sizable 38-24 rebounding advantage, thanks mainly to a game-high 16 rebounds from senior center Rokas, who while scoring 17 points (on 7-of-9 shooting), reached 1,201 career boards to become Hofstra’s all-time leading Division I rebounder.
Although he’s proud of the accomplishment, the humble Lithuanian was just as happy to help his team get a victory.
“It feels great… putting my name in the record books,” Gustys said. “It feels amazing, especially when you get that win.”
Gustys also did a solid job defensively on UNCW junior forward Devontae Cacok, helping to limit the nation’s leading rebounder (14.1 per game entering the night) to just eight boards and nine points (more than seven below Cacok’s 16.2 per game scoring average) on just 2-for-7 shooting.
“Some of the things we did defensively, we were able to neutralize [Cacok] a little bit… we concentrated on him,” head coach Joe Mihalich said.
Praising Gustys while recognizing his center’s desire to win more than achieving any individual records, Mihalich said, “It’s an incredible thing. I’ve said it so many times, but I said to Rok about a month ago, ‘Look, you’re rewriting the record book… but let’s see if we can win as many games as possible and get you to climb up a ladder at the end of the year.’ I know that’s where his head is at.
“Rebounders just don’t get enough credit, they just don’t. Whether it’s Rok or Cacok, everybody wants to talk about scoring. That’s the nature of our game [today]. I don’t know what the formula is or the conversion rate, but what’s 1,200 rebounds? It’s got to be equal to 2,500 points. I don’t know what it is, but it’s an incredible thing and we’re lucky to have him here.”
Hofstra was also fortunate to have sophomore guard Eli Pemberton, who left the game with 2:03 remaining, with a game-best 27 points (on 7-for-10 shooting and 11-for-12 at the free throw line), just one short of tying his career-high. And the Pride was additionally lucky to have both Wright-Foreman — who dropped an efficient 23 points (on 9-of-13 shooting) — and junior guard Desure Buie, whose career-best 10 assists (with only two turnovers) were half of the Pride’s 20. Junior guard Kenny Wormley also chipped in a season-high 12 points off the bench for Hofstra.
“He leads the team, he gets us into an offense, he understands the game and he has an understanding of what the team is trying to do,” Mihalich said of Buie, who has successfully battled back from injury after missing most of last season. “He gets the ball to people… he’s made the team better.”
Limiting second chances for the Seahawks — who entered the game leading the CAA with 14.1 offensive rebounds per game — also made things better for Pride.
While UNCW had seven offensive boards in the second half, Hofstra ended up with two more overall (10-8) and made that category a non-factor for the Seahawks in the opening half.
“Coming into the week, it was a big, big weekend and we got it off to the right start,” Mihalich said. “[UNCW] had one offensive rebound in the first half. The best thing they do is miss a shot because they go and get it. I thought that was one of the keys to the win, and Rok was dominant around the basket, and Elijah was terrific.”
Mihalich was happy to see Pemberton step up as well, but acknowledged there will still be times when Wright-Foreman might have to carry the Pride as he’s done in the past.
“If Elijah is making every shot, I don’t care if he’s taking 20 and Justin is taking two,” Mihalich said. “Everybody does different things. Sure, it’s the perfect world when you’ve got five guys that can all take 15 shots, but realistically, there [will be] some games when somebody’s really feeling it and there will be games when Justin is like that and he’ll take more shots than other people. That’s what he does.”
Against UNCW, it was attacking the offensive glass in a way that Mihalich expected the Seahawks to do, which got the rest of Pemberton’s game on track quickly.
Pemberton, who matched Gustys’ game-high four offensive rebounds (while grabbing seven boards overall), said, “Once I started crashing the offensive glass [and] started doing the little things, my game just opened up and [that] made everything [else] easier.”
Leading all scorers with 16 first-half points (while going to the foul line seven times and making all of those attempts), an aggressive Pemberton scored 13 points over the final 7:02 of the half to help the Pride turn a slim 27-25 edge into a 48-37 lead by halftime.
“I was just taking what the [defense] was giving me,” Pemberton said. “If it’s a jump shot, I’ll it, but [when] they pressed up on me, I just went straight to the rack [and] the lane was wide open. Whenever it wasn’t open, I dished down to Rok or our [other] big man (senior backup center) Hunter (Sabety). I just played a simple game tonight.”
Scoring 14 points in the second half, Wright-Foreman helped Hofstra maintain a lead of at least 12 points over the final 18:11. His jumper with 2:15 left capped a 16-7 run that pushed the Pride’s advantage to the game’s biggest lead, 94-72.
Winning so easily in the new threads made Hofstra wish it could don its throwback uniforms and warm-ups (which read “Hofstra College” with the year 1935 on them) more often.
“I think we should wear these every night,” Mihalich joked. “I think we should have throwbacks every night. It was a great idea. All the people in the athletic department did a fabulous job. It was really neat to do it. I’m sure we’ll do it again next year. I thought it was really cool.”
Pemberton concurred, “I loved it. I wish we could play in them every Thursday.”
Of course, Hofstra will be back in its regular, present-day uniforms when the Pride hosts Charleston on Saturday night, with a chance to further tighten the top of the CAA standings as the league reaches the two-thirds mark of the conference schedule.
The blowout win UNCW made it easy to prepare for that game as the Pride looks for payback for a six-point loss in Charleston on Jan. 20 after building an 18-point lead late in the first half.
“Thankfully, we don’t have to spend too much time on this one,” Mihalich said. “We can just enjoy it… and then we’ve got to get ready for a really good team. They were picked No. 1 in the league [and] they’ve got a lot of firepower. We played really well against them down there (in Charleston) for about 30 minutes, but you’ve got to play 40 minutes against them or else you’re not going to win. It’s February and we want to be good in February. To be good in March, you’ve got to be good in February.”
At least that month is off to a good start after a night when Hofstra honored its past while playing so well in the present.