HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — With the Hofstra Pride comfortably up by a dozen points in the final minute on Wednesday night, Justin Wright-Foreman could have looked for his shot and a chance to reach a career-high in points while besting his good friend and former high school teammate Kyle Allman Jr.
Instead, standing on the left wing, behind the 3-point arc, Wright-Foreman patiently waited for junior forward Stafford Trueheart to make a backdoor cut and take a perfect lob pass from Wright-Foreman for an alley-oop dunk to extend Hofstra’s lead to 14 points.
It was Wright-Foreman’s game-best sixth assist of the night and emblematic of what the senior guard and reigning Colonial Athletic Association Player (and preseason consensus to win that award again) is all about on the basketball floor.
Do mainly to his own unselfishness, Wright-Foreman (37 points), a Queens native, was barely edged out by fellow senior guard Allman Jr. (38 points), from Brooklyn, as the pair of dynamic scorers who won a PSAL title together as seniors in 2015 each settled for coming within two points of their respective career scoring highs.
But Wright-Foreman came away with something for which he was far more grateful — leading Hofstra (3-2) to an 80-71 Thanksgiving Eve win over the California State-Fullerton Titans (2-4) in the inaugural meeting between the schools at the Mack Sports Complex.
“It says that Justin wants to win more than score,” head coach Joe Mihalich said afterwards. “Justin scores a lot and shoots a lot, but every time he does, he’s trying to help his team win, and he did that tonight.”
“I’m proud of Justin,” Mihalich continued. “The elephant in the room was the fact that Justin and his former high school teammate were playing against each other. I’m proud of Justin’s composure. He could have easily tightened up or tried too hard, or taken it really personal between the two of them, and he didn’t.
“Justin showed tonight that he cares more about letters than numbers — the letter ‘W,’ (for ‘win’) and by the way, the numbers were better anyway. [Allman Jr.] might have got one point more, but Justin had six assists (to Allman Jr.’s one), five rebounds (two more than Allman Jr.) and one turnover. That’s a pretty good night’s work.”
The next thing Mihalich noted was also something that Wright-Foreman had going for him which Allman Jr. lacked, in the form of a main sidekick.
“And then Elijah stepped in whenever he had to and got points,” Mihalich said.
Elijah was junior guard Eli Pemberton, who after barely missing the 20-point mark with 18, 19 and 19 points respectively, in the Pride’s first three games, finally scored 20 points on 5-of-10 shooting.
In contrast, Allman Jr. had much of the Titans’ scoring burden placed solely on himself.
Senior guard Khalil Ahmad was Cal State Fullerton’s second-highest scorer with just 13 points, more than 10 below his team-leading average of 23.4 entering the game. Allman Jr. was the Titans’ second-leading scorer with 17.5 points per game. However, his scoring outburst (on the strength of 8-of-14 shooting from behind the arc, while his teammates collectively went just 2-for-14 from that distance), along with Ahmad being kept in check, left the duo virtually tied for the team scoring lead by the time the contest ended (with Ahmad at 21.7 points per game and Allman Jr. averaging 21.6 points per game).
“We did the same thing to both of those guys,” Mihalich said. “We just tried to shade them and adjust our defense to know where they were at all times, and make it as tough as we could for them to score. The difference was Allman kept making some tough, tough shots and Ahmad wasn’t making the tough ones tonight. He can do it, but tonight, he wasn’t.”
Meanwhile, Wright-Foreman (who recorded his 13th career 30-point game) and Pemberton were a two-man wrecking crew, with the former starting fast and leading the way. Wright-Foreman scored seven of Hofstra’s nine points, 14 of the Pride’s first 21 to help stake Hofstra to a slim 21-20 edge.
The Pride closed the final 8:10 of the half on a 20-9 run, to take a 41-29 lead into the locker room. By that time, Allman Jr. was doing all he could with 13 points, but that was matched by the same from Pemberton and nearly doubled with 24 first-half points on efficient 9-of-13 shooting from Wright-Foreman, who by intermission was on pace to tie Hofstra’s 62-year-old single-game record of 48 points.
Not only did Wright-Foreman and Pemberton account for but four of the Pride’s 41 points in the opening half, but they evenly drew 16 of Cal State Fullerton’s 20 fouls (with eight apiece) and took all 20 of Hofstra’s attempts at the foul line, where Wright-Foreman went 9-for-11 and Pemberton, 8-for-9.
When those two are in attack mode in that way, Pemberton said, “It makes us very dangerous. Games like this, where we get to the hoop together, hopefully it’s going to be something that lasts all year.”
It’s all part of a conscious effort that Pemberton is making this season to be the valuable second option Wright-Foreman needs.
“This year, I had a plan on helping Justin out more,” Pemberton said. “I feel like last year, he kind of put the team on his back. This summer, I tried to adjust my game to [find] ways to be more consistent for him.”
In his battle with Allman Jr., Wright-Foreman appreciated Pemberton’s assistance.
“It was definitely big time,” he said. “It’s great to have somebody like Eli to take the pressure off me, but most importantly, I can take the pressure off of him as well. When I get into the lane or he gets into the lane, penetrating and kicking it to each other [or our other teammates] for open shots. We’re just a dangerous team and people still need to find that out.”
After doing all of their first-half damage, neither Wright-Foreman nor Pemberton scored Hofstra’s first eight points after the break, and Wright-Foreman didn’t record his first points of the second half until 7:01 into the frame, when he sank two free throws to push the Pride’s lead to a game-high margin of 55-36.
Allman Jr. (who tied the opponent scoring record for The Mack, which opened in 2000) responded with 13 points to key an 18-9 spurt which pulled Cal State Fullerton within 64-54, with 8:38 left, but the Titans never got closer until Ahmad closed the scoring with a harmless dunk in the final seconds.
Asked if his obvious high energy and focus in the first half was motivated by his showdown with Allman Jr., Wright-Foreman answered, “Not really. It was more team-oriented. I just wanted to win, like coach said. We didn’t really think about it throughout the whole week. It wasn’t really in the back of my mind… it was [Allman Jr.’s] first game coming home. What can you say? We put on a show for the crowd, but we won.”
While that was enough for Wright-Foreman, Pemberton desperately wanted his teammate to reach 40 points.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I wanted him to get it so bad.”
Late in the game, Pemberton tried to offer some extra encouragement. “Justin was at the free throw line,” he recalled. “I think he had 33 [points] at the time, I said, ‘Bro, you are seven points away. Please get 40. He just looked at me like, ‘Elijah, go [away].’ I was like, ‘Dude, this is a great moment for you.’ That just shows the type of leader he is. He’s such a professional.”
With a slight laugh, Wright-Foreman added, “[Elijah] came up to me and I was like, ‘Elijah, not right now.’ I just wanted to win the game,” most importantly… [so] we could build on that.”
Noting the newly-installed large video boards in The Mack, one of which is not far from the Hofstra bench, Mihalich couldn’t help but interject regarding the late-game exchange between with Pemberton pushing Wright-Foreman to try for 40 points.
Placing his hand on his forehead, Mihalich joked, “As a coach, those video boards are unbelievable. There’s a little too much information up there, too much that these guys can see up there.”
In the end, of course, Mihalich had nothing to worry about since he didn’t have to tell his best player what to prioritize the most during the latest noteworthy performance which further cemented Pemberton’s high regard for Hofstra’s top option.
“I don’t think there’s a better guard in the country than Justin Wright-Foreman,” Pemberton said.
That may be possible but it’s certainly debatable.
Yet once thing was clear against Cal State Fullerton — that even while barely losing the scoring clash with Allman Jr., Wright-Foreman was the best and most important player on the floor.