It was the Hofstra’s Pride mantra throughout February: be consistent this month to be in the best position possible for the biggest month of the season.
After losing consecutive games against the two best teams in the Colonial Athletic Association — conference regular season co-champions Charleston and Northeastern — to end the first half of its league schedule with a mediocre 5-4 record, Hofstra (19-11, 12-6 CAA) finished right behind those two teams, securing the No. 3 seed in the CAA tournament (March 3-6 in North Charleston) with a 7-2 finish over the Pride’s final game in January and throughout February.
That stretch ended with a gutty 91-86 win over the fifth-place Towson Tigers (18-13, 8-10 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday. It was Hofstra’s fourth consecutive victory, allowing the Pride to take the CAA’s second-longest winning streak into the conference tournament (behind Northeastern seven straight wins) after Charleston saw its 11-game winning streak end in overtime at fourth-place William & Mary.
“We’re thrilled with the win today but [we’re] even more thrilled with how February was for us,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “We really played well in the month of February. It was our battle cry from February 1st, on. If you want to be good in March [and] if you want to have a chance to win your conference tournament, you need to be good in February, and we’ve been really good in February.”
Overcoming a career-high 36 points, six rebounds and a game-best six assists from sophomore guard Zane Martin and 20 points plus 12 rebounds from sophomore forward Justin Gorham, the Pride built a 13-point second-half lead and held on late behind five double-figure scorers, led by CAA-leading scorer, junior guard Justin Wright-Foreman’s 27 points, 15 each from senior center Rokas Gustys and sophomore guard Eli Pemberton, and 11 each from junior guard Desure Buie and freshman guard Jalen Ray.
Gustys, who likely played his final home game for the Pride (barring a possible home game in a CBI or CIT postseason tournament), was able to put his sentiments aside to help Hofstra win on Senior Day.
“I was pretty calm, to be honest,” he said. “I expected it to be a little more emotional but we had to get a win, so it was no time to be emotional. I can be as emotional as I can now because we got a win. That’s all I wanted, to get the job done and go with a rhythm into the tournament. It’s going to be a special tournament this year.”
Grabbing a team-high eight rebounds, Gustys (averaging a double-double, with 10.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game) finished his final regular season with single-digit rebounds in consecutive games for only the second time this season, as Hofstra’s all-time Division-I leading rebounder (1,295 rebounds) moved within 19 boards of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson’s 31-year-old CAA record.
Finally allowing himself to show his emotions, Gustys clapped his hands, and hopped down court exuberantly after drawing a key charge on senior guard Mike Morsell (10 points) with the Pride up, 85-79, with 1:32 left.
“[Morsell] was driving and I was expecting the call,” Gustys said. “It was great to get an extra possession for us.”
Following Gustys’ big stop, Towson didn’t score another basket until Martin hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final 22 seconds, the last of which drew the Tigers within three points, with nine seconds left, before two Wright-Foreman free throws closed the scoring with 6.8 seconds remaining.
Overcoming seven straight points which put Towson ahead, 14-7, less than six minutes into the game, Hofstra used a 12-3 run to go up, 19-17, before taking a 41-37 lead at halftime.
An 11-2 spurt coming out of the locker room gave the Pride the game’s biggest lead, 52-39, just 1:59 into the second half, and Hofstra was still comfortably ahead, 73-61, with 7:57 to go, before a 13-3 stretch brought Towson within 76-74 with 4:02 left.
With the lead slipping away, Wright-Foreman — who scored 16 second-half points — leaned on what Gustys taught him.
“I just didn’t want to lose the game,” he said. “I was trying to be a leader and just trying to tell everybody to stay positive. That was the main thing, just stay optimistic about the situation, stay the course and get the job done.
“I learned a lot from [Gustys], especially on the leadership end of things. Rok always told me to remain positive. He always kept me engaged in the game. I thank him from the bottom of my heart because without [him], I don’t know [where our team would be].”
What Wright-Foreman did know was that without the win, Hofstra would have had to play as a four seed in a CAA quarterfinal rematch against a pesky and physical Towson squad which had three players foul out while committing 12 more fouls (29-17) than the Pride, which attempted 22 more free throws (40-18) and made 14 more (26-12) than the Tigers.
Helping to offset 58.1 percent Towson shooting (18-for-31) in the second half, it was the third straight game in which Hofstra held a significant advantage in free throw attempts.
“We want to attack the basket,” Mihalich noted. “We’ve got guys who can score and teams are going to foul us. The discrepancy [in free throw attempts for us lately] is [also] because we play a lot of zone [defense] and we don’t foul as much.”
Even with Hofstra’s sizable free throw edge against the Towson, Mihalich was relieved to finally pull away from the determined Tigers.
“Today was a big win for a lot of reasons,” Mihalich said. “We beat a tough team… to do that you have to be tough yourself, and we were.”
Instead of having to tangle with Towson again, Hofstra will instead face sixth-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington, which the Pride beat (at home) and lost to (more recently, on the road) by 20 points this season.
“You can take a lot from both of [those games],” Mihalich said. “They were two different ballgames, so we’ll have to get to work on that… Whoever we play [in the tournament], I think we’ll be confident but also respectful in every way, shape and form… it’s going to be a heck of a tournament. There will not be a bad game [in Charleston].”
While Hofstra narrowly swept its two games with Towson, the Pride seemingly matches up better with less physical, more similarly-styled UNCW. Beating the Tigers also kept Hofstra on the opposite side of the bracket as Charleston, which in addition to being the top seed, will play less than 10 miles from its campus.
Mainly though, the Pride wanted to stay hot before heading to the same location.
“We didn’t want to lose the momentum we had going,” Mihalich said. “We’re playing good basketball right now… we can carry over that springboard feeling we want to have going into the tournament. It’s huge.
“I’m proud of the win, happy for all of the guys and anxious to have a good week of practice and get down to Charleston.”
Mihalich believes his team is in the right mindset for that at just the right time of year.
“These guys are together,” he said. “They believe in each other [and] play for each other. It’s a good feeling in that locker room. They communicate, they have a sense of how the other guys play around them and [Wright-Foreman and Gustys] lead the way.”
Focusing on Gustys ending his stellar regular season career, Mihalich added, “What Rok does for us, the rebounding is obvious, but the defense is incredible. He just anchors our defense [and] gets everybody in the right position.
“It’s a frustrating thing for me because scorers get the hype [and] the headlines. Points get the recognition [and] the awards, but rebounders and defenders win and this guy’s made us a winner… [Gustys has] the heart of a lion and I just can’t imagine being on the floor without him next year. I’ve been lucky to be his coach for four years.”
After that comment, Mihalich turned to Wright-Foreman and joked to his 6-foot-1 star, “You’re going to have to rebound next year.”
While Mihalich considers Gustys’ defense and record-setting rebounding underrated, he felt the same about the Lithuanian center’s CAA-leading 63.3 percent field goal percentage, even if almost all of Gustys’ scoring comes from near the basket.
Two years ago, Gustys likewise led the CAA, shooting 66 percent from the floor (in addition to grabbing a CAA-best 13 rebounds per game) to help the Pride to its lone CAA regular season title and within seconds of a CAA tournament championship before suffering a heartbreaking overtime loss to second-seeded UNCW.
“He’s an efficient offensive player,” Mihalich said of Gustys, who made his first six shots before missing his last one on Saturday. “To have a good field goal percentage, you have to know when to take your shot, know when to shoot and when not to shoot, and he does those things.”
At some point in the next game or two — whether in the CAA tournament or in the CBI or CIT — Gustys is likely to surpass Robinson’s rebounding mark and will probably become one of the select few players to have his number retired and hang from the rafters at the Mack Sports Complex.
If that happens, Gustys’ name and uniform number will have something in common with Hofstra assistant coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton, who as a senior, led the Pride (then the Flying Dutchmen) to the first of its of consecutive NCAA tournament berths (2000, 2001) — out of the America East conference — breaking a 23-year-drought for the school.
Hofstra joined the CAA after the second of its two America East titles (without Claxton) the following year — for the 2001-02 season — and hasn’t returned to the NCAA tournament since.
In Gustys’ eyes, his impressive individual accomplishments are merely things that take care of themselves during his more coveted pursuit of what he wants to achieve the most.
It’s not even a question in Gustys’ mind if he’d rather trade his Hofstra rebounding record or replace Robinson in the CAA records books for a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.
“Of course, one thousand percent,” Gustys — a product of LeBron James’ Oak Hill (VA) Academy — said on making that hypothetical swap. “That’s what I came here for. I wasn’t chasing any records or anything like that. I was chasing that ring and chasing the banner.
“I think it would be great for the school because it’s been [17 years for Hofstra and] 18 years since Speedy was playing here. Coming here, my goal was to get the championship and cut those nets. We came up short my sophomore year, but I feel like we have a good chance this year, so hopefully, these next three games, we’re going to be the best we can be.”
Claxton, who was the biggest factor on the court in the key fourth quarter of the 2003 Game 6 NBA Finals clincher for the San Antonio Spurs, has imparted to Gustys the exhilaration of winning a conference tournament title.
Recalling what Claxton told him, Gustys said, “’Rok, the NBA championship is cool, but when you play for your school and you live in the area, there’s nothing like cutting down the nets in the NCAA.’ He said, ‘It’s just amazing. Nothing is going to beat that feeling, not even an NBA championship’ because he was [Hofstra’s] best player and he [put] this school on the map. So that’s what we’re trying to do [now] and he’s hoping that we can do it again in my senior year.”
Reflecting on the bittersweet notion of soon departing Hofstra while hoping he won’t have to play another game there (because that might mean winning the CAA tournament), Gustys said, “I’ve felt at home here. I’ve been really comfortable. It’s going to be sad if that was my last game here, but [I’ve had] four years of great memories and a lot of great relationships I made.”
Of course, there will be plenty of time to travel down Memory Lane later. For now, Gustys’ focus and that of the Pride is more immediate with what lies ahead during the first week in March.
“We have a good rhythm going now with four straight wins,” Gustys said. “I feel like that’s big, that’s huge. We have a good chance.”
As they planned, thanks to a good February, they do.