HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — For more than 12 minutes at the Mack Sports Complex on Wednesday night, the North Carolina A&T Aggies (0-4) were giving the Hofstra Pride (2-1) the type of battle head coach Joe Mihalich had expected. But the inspiration from senior point guard Desure Buie and the helpful advice from the mother of senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman served as the catalysts Wright-Foreman and junior forward Stafford Trueheart needed to key a big first-half run in what ultimately became an easy 92-72 win.
After seeing his team rally and eventually pull away by as much as 23 points, Mihalich admitted, “I did not think this would happen, I really didn’t.”
Although the Pride was a 16½-point favorite, Mihalich was concerned about what he saw on film, especially in the Aggies’ 12-point loss two games earlier.
“I was up all night watching their Wake Forest game,” he said. “With [1:26] to go at Wake Forest, with 10,000 people in the stands, they were down eight. They’re a dangerous team. They play hard, they’re scrappy.”
Mihalich’s fears were initially realized when North Carolina A&T scored nine straight points to turn an early five-point deficit into a 19-15 lead just past the midpoint of the opening half.
However, that didn’t deter Wright-Foreman or his teammates.
Recalling the Pride’s season opener on the same floor, when Hofstra unexpectedly trailed Mount St. Mary’s, 16-1, before winning by 18, Wright-Foreman felt he and the Pride would get going.
“I definitely felt that was going to come. I don’t know why, [but] we just start off slow and then pick it up.”
Starting with an airballed 3-pointer and a couple of turnovers, Wright-Foreman later said, “I was a little down on myself. I don’t know why, but my teammates definitely picked me up and got me going.”
Sure enough, the run Wright-Foreman expected would come soon, as Hofstra, down 24-20, scored 17 straight points — all from Wright-Foreman (nine points, including a four-point play) and Trueheart (the other eight points) — to lead, 37-24, with 5:03 left before halftime.
By the end, all five Pride starters scored in double figures, with Wright-Foreman scoring 15 of his game-high 22 points in the first half, junior guard Eli Pemberton adding 13 of his 19 points after the break and Truehart recording all of his career-high 14 points while taking all seven of his shots (making all but one) in the first half.
Extending a 47-35 halftime lead to 55-37 just 3:07 into the second half, the Pride never led by fewer than a dozen points thereafter and by no less than 15 points over the final 13:55.
While Wright-Foreman matched Buie’s game-best seven assists and added three steals, he credited his point guard for sparking Hofstra’s game-turning run.
“The energy really came from Desure,” he noted. “[He] was the first one to say, ‘Not tonight’ (when the Pride trailed early) and we just all fed off of his energy. Once he got a steal and we got an alley-oop at the other end (to lead, 10-6), that really pumped us up, and it got contagious at that point.”
Buie wasn’t just a motivator and distributor for others, but he also contributed 12 points and a game-high four steals.
Those thefts and others — 12 total for the Pride – wreaked havoc any time the Aggies attempted a comeback.
Hofstra forced 19 turnovers, while committing only 11, leading to an impactful 31-16 advantage in points off turnovers.
“We just knew we had to get stops and [let] the defense turn into offense,” Stafford said. “The offense is never really a problem for us, we just have to lock in on defense, which turns into east buckets.”
Throwing different looks at North Carolina A&T and sticking to defensive principles also helped the Pride.
“We mixed it up a little bit,” Mihalich said. “We played some man, we played some zone… I thought our slides were pretty good, our bumps were pretty good. We talk about position, vision and anticipation, and I thought they did those three things pretty [well].”
Offensively, Hofstra held a decided edge at the foul line, where the Pride went 25-for-28 and the Aggies, 13-for-15.
Seven of North Carolina A&T’s fouls were drawn by Wright-Foreman, who sank all eight of his free throws after making a concerted effort to attack the basket following the review of game film of Hofstra’s prior game (a four-point loss at Marshall on Sunday).
“I took a couple bad shots (at Marshall),” Wright-Foreman said.
But he didn’t need the video of that game to tell him so.
Instead, he said, ‘’My mom told me I take too many jump shots.”
Mihalich quickly chimed in, “I agree with your mom,” drawing a laugh from everyone in the press room, including Wright-Foreman.
“My goal tonight was just to try to get to the basket and force the issue, and to try to get to the line,” Wright-Foreman continued.
Long before he made his first trip to the foul line, Wright-Foreman had already scored enough from the field to pass Leroy Allen and Frank Walker to move into 10th-place on the all-time Hofstra scoring list, where the reigning and preseason Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year now sits with 1,455 career points.
“I’m very honored because we’ve had a lot of great players play here,” Wright-Foreman said. “I’m just honored to be on that list. I’m extremely blessed. I can’t thank everybody here and Coach enough for giving me the opportunity to be here.”
At minimum, Wright-Foreman is likely to surpass Mihalich’s assistant coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton (a former Hofstra great and NBA first-round draft pick in 2000) for seventh-place on the school scoring list.
Mihalich quipped to the media, “When he gets close to Speedy, you’re going to see Speedy tell me to take him out of the game.”
Speaking more seriously, Mihalich said earlier of his star guard, “This guy’s as special as it gets.”
Normally, Wright-Foreman, and sometimes his team, can be that way on their own.
But this time, it didn’t hurt to have some motivation and added production from Buie and an extra push from Mom.