HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — As Tareq Coburn made his way into the media room at the Mack Sports Complex on Wednesday night, he saw three chairs behind the table where Hofstra Pride head coach Joe Mihalich would normally sit, flanked on either side by two of Mihalich’s biggest contributors in a game.
As usual, Mihalich’s best player, senior shooting guard Justin Wright-Foreman, sat in the chair to left of where Mihalich prepared to sit.
Brand new to the process, Coburn naturally filled in the open seat next to Wright-Foreman when Mihalich walked in and asked Coburn if he wanted the middle seat.
Realizing his mistake, Coburn said, “I’m never in here,” and slid one seat over to his right, allowing Mihalich to take his regular seat. Before doing so, Mihalich joked to Coburn, “You should get all three seats.”
Though the comment was said in jest, it underscored Mihalich’s gratitude for the valuable spark Coburn gave Hofstra (4-3) in a 94-86 win over the Siena Saints (2-5), who lost their fourth straight game.
Mihalich could count on what he’d get from Wright-Foreman, which was a game-high 28 points on efficient 12-of-19 shooting for the dangerous scorer who entered the night tied for third in the nation in scoring with 27.8 points per game.
He also wasn’t surprised by the 19 points added by the Pride’s second-leading scorer (after Wright-Foreman), junior guard Eli Pemberton, who remained the model of consistency by recording between 17 and 20 points for the sixth time in Hofstra’s seven games this season. And Mihalich was pleased with senior point guard Desure Buie’s 13 points.
But the difference maker in holding off the Saints after the Pride allowed a 20-point second-half lead dwindle to as little as five points on three separate occasions in the final 1:10 was Coburn providing about as much production against Siena — with career-highs of 12 points (10 in the first half) and 14 rebounds (eight in the second half) — as he had over his brief college career combined.
As a freshman, Coburn played just 28 minutes, totaling a mere four points and three rebounds in 11 games with St. Bonaventure. After sitting out the following year, the current junior guard had amassed only another 14 points and seven boards in six games with Hofstra this season, with a good portion of that output (10 points and three rebounds) coming against Maryland on Nov. 16.
After witnessing Coburn’s first career double-double and Wright-Foreman help carry his team with 17 second-half points, Mihalich said, “Tareq energized us and Justin has very few equals.”
Glancing at the stat sheet, Mihalich then noticed the rarity of Wright-Foreman failing to record a rebound for the first time in 53 games (when Wright-Foreman was sophomore).
“But no rebounds for you,” Mihalich continued, turning toward Wright-Foreman. “That’s not like you. That’s because Tareq got them all.”
Noting the absence of center Rokas Gustys, who graduated from Hofstra last year as the school’s all-time leading rebounder (just nine shy of David Robinson’s Colonial Athletic Association record), Coburn said, “I figured that my team needed somebody to rebound the ball since we [are missing] Rok. Coach told me, to stay in the game, I have to rebound the ball. Even though I might not score, or do something on offense, I still have to rebound, hustle, bring some energy to the team. So, I just tried to see what I could do and gave it my all.”
What Coburn did on the glass — which included another career-best of six offensive rebounds – was particularly impressive standing at 6-foot-4.
“It’s not about technique, it’s not about putting this foot here, putting that foot there,” Mihalich insisted. “It’s about wanting the ball and Tareq wanted the basketball tonight. He just was relentless. He just went after the ball hard. They were all tough rebounds. Nothing was easy, and it was just his attitude and his energy that really gave us the boost that we needed.”
While much of Mihalich’s praise was true, Coburn said there were particular methods involved as well.
“Reading [an opponent], if he’s boxing me, I fake [one way] and go the other way,” he said. “It’s techniques we do in practice a lot.”
Coming on the heels of graduate forward Jacquil Taylor’s career-high 17 rebounds in Hofstra’s previous game, Coburn’s performance gives Mihalich some optimism that the Pride — which has outrebounded opponents in five of its seven games this season — can continue to hold its own on the boards after losing Gustys.
“I’m hopeful, for sure, and I know that people [on our team] can do it,” he said. “It’s nice that it’s a different guy every night… we’re doing okay, so far, in the rebounding category.”
While he wasn’t pleased with the ending, Mihalich saw more good than bad as Hofstra — which made 25 of 29 free throws while Siena went just 13-for-21 at the line — slowly built a large advantage.
“We had enough good stretches to win,” he said. “[After] we were up 20 with [under] eight minutes to go, and then we just found a way to make it interesting, which is something we’ve got to work on and study. If we’re going to be a good team, we can’t have those stretches that we had tonight where we were poor with the ball or poor defensively.”
Leading 15-10, Hofstra fell behind by two points following a 13-6 Siena run. However, the Pride (which eclipsed their previous season-high point total by two points) went on a 24-12 spurt after that and led, 45-37, at intermission.
The Saints scored the first five points after the break to get within three, but Hofstra responded with a 32-15 run over the next 11 minutes and took 77-57 lead when Coburn pulled down a defensive rebound and pushed the ball to mid-court before a handoff to Wright-Foreman, who took it the rest of the way for a nice left-handed layup.
Down 79-59, with seven minutes left, Siena — which got 27 points (18 in the second half) on 9-of-12 shooting, a game-high 13 assists, five rebounds, only one turnover from freshman guard Jalen Pickett, along with 25 points on 12-of-17 shooting from senior forward Evan Fisher — battled back with a 16-2 stretch to pull within 81-75, with 3:11 remaining.
Freshman forward Shane Seymour (13 points) had a chance to cut that margin in half, but missed a wide-open left corner 3-pointer with 2:33 to go.
Wright-Foreman moved the lead to 85-77, with 1:16 left, on a turnaround jumper from the left elbow. It was one of several nice moves in Wright-Foreman’s repertoire during the game, including an earlier quick spin move and drive through traffic for a layup.
Those kinds of moments, along with his statistical production, continue to gain Wright-Foreman some national attention.
Asked about being named to the Lute Olsen Award Watch List on Monday (after being placed on the Jerry West Award Pre-Season Watch List in October), presented to the best Division I player in men’s college basketball, Wright-Foreman humbly replied, “It’s an honor to be on those lists, but I try to not let that get in my head. In a respectful way, I try to not let that affect the way I play and not pay it any mind because I just have to go out and play every night and prove why I should be on those lists and why [NBA scouts] come to the games. It’s more so for my team. I know they need me and I need them as well.”
Mihalich added of Wright-Foreman, “He just works so hard. It’s a coach’s dream when your best player, especially one that’s as high profile as Justin, is also your hardest worker.”
That type of work ethic has translated to others on the roster, including not only Pemberton, Coburn and Buie, but also to sophomore guard Jalen Ray and graduate forward Dan Dwyer.
Each played important role in beating Siena, with Ray contributing eight points and leading the team with a plus-20 (10 more than the next closest on the Pride, Dwyer, who had a career-best nine points and seven rebounds).
“We kind of have eight starters,” Mihalich said. “It’s not who starts, it’s who finishes. Tonight, Tareq, Jaylen and Danny were on the floor to finish the game. They might not have started, but they were on the floor to finish the game.”
Speaking specifically of Ray, Mihalich added, “He just makes the team better. He’s just a really good player. When he goes on the floor, we get better. That’s how you define a good substitute. Jalen’s done that, Danny’s done that [and], Tareq’s done it. If we [are going] to have a chance to be a good team, that’s part of why [we might be good].”
Yet perhaps the biggest unexpected help came from Coburn.
And with his first breakout game at the college level finally under his belt, Coburn will know exactly where to sit after the game if he plays that way again.