As much as a basketball team’s best player can tremendously impact a game, that player still needs teammates’ contributions to win. And yet, as much as the latter is needed, sometimes a team still needs its best player to finish the job.
In a matchup of the Colonial Athletic Association’s top two scorers, junior guards Justin Wright-Foreman and Tramaine Isabell matched basket for basket. But Wright-Foreman had more help with building a sizable second-half lead, which was enough to make a strong Isabell-led rally fall just short before Wright-Foreman closed the deal in the Hofstra Pride’s 88-76 victory over the Drexel Dragons (11-18, 5-11 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
After a game-turning 22-5 run at the start of the second half gave Hofstra (17-11, 9-6 CAA) a 15-point lead, Isabell (a Missouri transfer averaging 20.4 points per game) scored 12 of his team-high 29 points (on 12-for-22 shooting) to key a 25-10 Drexel run which brought the Dragons within 67-64 with 6:01 left.
That’s when Wright-Foreman (averaging a CAA-leading 24.6 points per game) took over, scoring 10 of his game-high 32 points (on 12-for-20 shooting) to fuel a game-clinching 12-4 spurt which extended the Pride’s lead to 79-67 with 2:13 remaining.
Drexel got no closer than nine points thereafter as a layup by Wright-Foreman (who scored 22 second-half points on 8-of-12 shooting) pushed the lead to as much as 88-72 with 40 seconds to go.
Besides Isabell, the Dragons had three players reach double figures only quietly, with sophomore guard Kurk Lee and junior guard Troy Harper tallying 11 points each and senior guard Sammy Mojica adding 10 points.
That wasn’t enough to offset the help Wright-Foreman received, with sophomore guard Eli Pemberton scoring 16 points, junior guard Desure Buie getting 13 points and a game-best four steals, senior center Rokas Gustys recording 10 points and a game-high 17 rebounds (to move him within 36 of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson for the all-time CAA lead) and sophomore forward Stafford Trueheart adding all nine of his points and all of his game-high three blocks in the second half.
Hofstra, despite a bunch of missed free throws, benefitted by a much friendlier whistle. Drexel committed 10 more fouls (23-13), which led to the Pride attempting 26 more free throws (35-19) and making 11 more (18-7) than the Dragons. Although Hofstra was atrocious for most of the game at the foul line (starting 9-for-25), the Pride finished up strong there (9-for-10).
That was coupled with Hofstra’s sizzling 19-for-30 (63.3 percent) shooting during a 56-point, second-half outburst.
Long before that, Isabell caused some early problems for the Pride, going on a personal 9-0 run to put Drexel up, 9-2. Although Hofstra took several slim first-half leads after that, the Pride (which moved into sole possession of third-place with two regular season games left) couldn’t pull away and trailed the Dragons (who fell into a tie for ninth-place in the 10-team CAA), 34-32, at halftime.
Head coach Joe Mihalich said, “I thought we were kind of lackluster in that first half. We just didn’t have that pep in our step. Maybe it was a little bit of a hangover from that great win we had (over William & Mary, to tie that team for third place) on Thursday night.”
Allowing his players the freedom to solve that issue on their own worked out.
“At halftime, the guys really got together,” Mihalich said, before joking about the influence of his own message. “We have 15 minutes [during halftime]. At about maybe nine minutes, I go in there and we try to get back out [on the court for the second half] at about five, so I’ve got about four minutes to say things that they’re not going to listen to anyway. They’ll have about five or six minutes to themselves and I don’t know what’s going on in there, but I have a great feeling about what’s going on in there without being in there.”
Buie answered, “We’re the ones that are playing. Coach can tell us everything that’s going on, but we’ve got to take ownership on what we need to do. We communicate with each other. Everybody listens. One player speaks and everybody listens. We told each other, we’ve got to defend and that’s what we did.
“The first half, we were a step slow. The second half, we knew we had to come strong defensively to [help] create our offense. So I tried to tell everybody that we need to defend and lock in, and that’s what we did in the second half.”
Walking the talk, Buie was the biggest factor right after halftime, scoring seven of Hofstra’s first 10 points of the second half and a total of nine points during the Pride’s big run after the break. Four of those points came off of a pair of steals, each finished by Buie with fast break layups.
“That was the difference in the game,” Mihalich said of Buie leading the key spurt.
Wright-Foreman said, “We feed off each other… defensively, [Buie] stepped up big time, and next thing you know, it was a trickle[-down] effect… and it just led to our offense. It’s a big credit to [him].”
Buie seemed even more impressed with seeing his good friend Wright-Foreman place his imprint squarely on yet another game.
“Justin is the best offensive player I’ve ever played with,” Buie said. “It’s special because I know what he can do, but when he’s doing it, it’s just like, ‘He’s doing this? Really?’ It’s surprising every time. He’s just a great player. I’m happy to be with him.”
As much as Mihalich has always appreciated the same about Wright-Foreman, he is especially grateful for the effect Buie has had on his team after returning from an injury which caused Buie to miss most of last season.
“Our team changed when [Buie] started taking over and he’s made everybody better,” Mihalich said. “That’s what great players do. He runs the offense for us, he gets the ball to the right guys. You need a straw to stir the drink and that’s what Desure does for us. We always talk about [the mantra], ‘Know your role, accept your role, perfect your role,’ and Desure epitomizes that.”
Wright-Foreman’s focus is likewise team-first, even when it came to matching up with the only other CAA player besides himself to average at least 20 points this season.
“It wasn’t like a real personal battle [with Isabell],” Wright-Foreman said. “I just wanted to try to help my team win.”
Wright-Foreman and his ever-evolving and improving supporting cast have done that well of late, to the tune of five wins in Hofstra’s last seven games as the Pride readies itself for the CAA tournament in two weeks.
“We started the weekend in fourth-place and we ended it in third, so that’s good,” Mihalich said.
But Mihalcih also warned, ahead of Hofstra’s final week of the regular season, which includes a road game at eighth-place James Madison and a home date with fifth-place Towson, “Where we are now can change if we don’t stay focused and stay hungry. We can still play better, we’re still making our mistakes, but there’s a good feeling right now about us and we want to build on that.”
One area Mihalich would like to sure up before the CAA tournament is getting some additional players on his bench to gain some more confidence.
“I hope we can get some more people feeling good about themselves and getting ready to contribute because we might need them for three games in three days [during the CAA tournamet],” he said.
But perhaps the close bond formed between New York City natives Wright-Foreman (Queens, NY) and Buie (Bronx, NY) and having others follow along might be enough to achieve the Pride’s ultimate goal this season.
“This is my best friend, Wright-Foreman said, pointing to Buie. “We’re always together on and off the court. Playing in that (CAA championship) game with this group would be really special. That’s what we plan on getting to.”