Where does a conference tournament championship contender look for inspiration as its regular season winds down and it tries to best position itself for a serious run at an NCAA tournament berth?
To donuts, of course.
Taking a cue from Krispy Kreme displaying its iconic storefront neon logo bearing its company name and the words “HOT NOW” to alert prospective customers each time a fresh, hot batch of donuts is ready, the Hofstra Pride has adopted that same expression as a battle cry for how it wants to finish its season.
Hofstra (16-11, 9-6 Colonial Athletic Association) had to try something to shift its thinking after its prior hot play (winning five of six games) gave way to a much cooler 3-4 stretch of inconsistency.
But maybe something more significant than a donut company’s gimmicky invitation to deliciousness is developing for the Pride at just the right time.
As the normally reliable shooting accuracy of the CAA’s leading scorer, junior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, has faltered recently, the Pride’s second- and third-leading scorers, sophomore guard Eli Pemberton and senior Lithuanian center Rokas Gustys, have begun to step up their respective games in ways that a “hot now” mentality might lead to Hofstra being hot when it would need to be the most: in early March.
Shooting under 36 percent for a second straight game and below his season average of 44.7 percent for a fourth consecutive time, Wright-Foreman was picked up by Pemberton and Gustys in a 90-84 win over the William & Mary Tribe (16-10, 9-6 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
Yet despite going 5-for-16, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range, Wright-Foreman contributed in other ways, like making all six of his free throw attempts, to help him reach 19 points. He also added a game-high seven assists with just two turnovers.
Junior guard, Desure Buie nearly matched Wright-Foreman in that department, with six assists, and freshman guard Jalen Ray added 13 points off the bench (making half of his 3-point attempts) while recording four of the Pride’s six steals.
Mainly though, Hofstra was led by Pemberton’s game-high 26 points (on 8-of 13 shooting, plus 7-of-8 at the foul line) and Gustys, who while scoring a season-high 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting, grabbed 21 of Hofstra’s 36 rebounds, including all but one of the Pride’s offensive boards.
Motivated by a combination of Hofstra’s head-scratching 20-point loss in its previous game (at North Carolina-Wilmington on Saturday) — nine days after the Pride beat the same team at home by the same margin — and contemplating the mortality of his college basketball career, Gustys is making every last minute of his final games as a senior count.
“What happened the last game was a wakeup call,” he said. “I wanted to grab every single rebound.”
Gustys, whose solid work around the basket has helped him lead the CAA with a 61.6 percent field goal percentage, credited his point guards for setting him up. “Justin had seven assists and Desure had six, so that helped me a lot, [with them] finding me to make open shots,” he said.
Reflecting on the twilight of his record-setting career, Gustys — the Pride’s all-time leading rebounder in Division I (1,261), who trails NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson by 53 rebounds for the all-time CAA record — said, “It’s going really fast. All we have left is three regular-season games. It’s hard, but I’m trying to deal with it and get the best out of it, like chasing a couple more records and just pushing [myself] every single time I step on the floor.”
Head coach Joe Mihalich added of Gustys, “We’ve got to look for him. He’s finishing when he catches the ball.”
Meanwhile, Pemberton seems to be peaking just when Hofstra needs him to. His latest scoring outburst was his eighth 20-point game of the season. Half of those have come within the Pride’s past five games.
Part of what helped Pemberton was movement, with Hofstra’s players and the basketball.
Mihalich, who notched his 350th career win, his 85th with the Pride, noted the reminder of that approach as it was written on a board in the Hofstra locker room. It read, “Move the ball and move people.”
He said, “That’s what the (San Antonio) Spurs do, that’s what the (Boston) Celtics do, that’s what all the good teams do.” When you get people moving and you get that ball moving, I don’t care who the other team is, it’s hard for [them] to pick up what [their] assignment’s going to be. That’s the idea behind it.”
Hofstra — which moved into a third-place tie in the CAA with the William & Mary, one game behind Northeastern and two games behind conference favorite, first-place Charleston — shot 52.9 percent in the opening half and used a 21-7 run to take a 46-29 lead with 4:33 left in the frame before settling for a 48-36 advantage at halftime.
Although sophomore forward Justin Pierce (team-highs of 24 points and 14 rebounds) shot 6-for-9 in the first half, his teammates were a combined 6-for-17 at the break.
While the Tribe shot better — 50 percent (15-for-30) — in the second half, the CAA’s best-shooting team, both overall (50.7 percent) and from 3-point range (43.8 percent), was held in check enough by the Pride, especially from behind the arc, where William & Mary — which averages a conference-best 84.8 points per game — was just 9-for-24 (37.5 percent).
“I’m really proud of this team for playing the way we played at the defensive end,” Mihalich said. “There will probably be some chuckles because [William & Mary] scored 84 points, [but] that team is going to score [at least] 84 points [almost] every night, especially the way we play. We have a fast tempo… our defense wasn’t bad. I thought we did a pretty decent job.”
Chipping away at Hofstra’s earlier sizable led, William & Mary got within five points on three different occasions during the middle part of the second half, but each time the Tribe tried to get even closer, the Pride pulled away.
Six straight William & Mary points brought the Tribe within 80-76 with just under a minute left, but a clutch 3-pointer from Wright-Foreman with 30 seconds remaining gave Hofstra some needed breathing room.
That chance only came because Mihalich insisted (despite a differing opinion) in the huddle during a timeout that the Pride stick with Wright-Foreman on the play after the guard had, as Mihalich noted, “Uncharacteristically made a couple of bad plays down the stretch.”
After Mihalich’s faith in Wright-Foreman was rewarded, the Pride was able to put the game away at the free throw line, as William & Mary couldn’t get closer than four points, on a 3-pointer with four seconds to go.
His recent struggles aside, Wright-Foreman remains Hofstra’s primary offensive option. But now, he may be part of a more bona fide trio with the way Pemberton and Gustys (who recorded his 12th double-double of the season) are playing.
“Those three guys are just picking us up on their shoulders and carrying us,” Mihalich said. “Whether it’s Rok with his defense and rebounding, whether it’s Elijah with his all-around game, whether it’s Justin with his scoring and passing, those three guys are carrying us, so we’re just going to keep going with [them].”
So far, that has taken Hofstra (picked fourth in the CAA this year) to a spot that’s slightly better than expected, but not yet where it would like to end up, as the Pride hopes to go dancing for the first time since 2001.
“Third-place is good, but it’s just not first,” Pemberton said. “We’ve got three games left (two at home) so we’re just going to try to take care of business. Being in third-place, it says something [about] the team. It’s not where we wanted to be, but it’s not last.”
At least that’s a position which leaves room for more donut-inspired motivation.
“It’s a good time to be hot,” Pemberton said, before continuing with a laugh. “My coach keeps saying it, ‘Hot now, hot now,’ and that’s our thing right now. Stay hot and stay consistent. The team wants to get to March Madness.”
Mihalich interrupted, joking with the media about what Pemberton was really implying.
“They want us to buy Krispy Kreme donuts,” he quipped while smiling at Pemberton.
Those would be good too. But nothing would taste as sweet for Hofstra as its first NCAA tournament bid in 17 years.