HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Reminded that Justin Wright-Foreman didn’t call glass, Hofstra Pride assistant coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton responded, “He called game. That’s even better.”
With a single, exhilarating 34-foot runner that he banked in off the glass at the final buzzer, Wright-Foreman eclipsed Claxton’s college scoring high, set his own career scoring high, matched a Lew Alcindor achievement and stunned the preseason Colonial Athletic Association favorite in Hofstra’s thrilling 75-72 comeback win over the Northeastern Huskies at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
Scoring 27 of Hofstra’s 35-second-half points, Wright-Foreman (who finished with 42 points) saved his best for last when the senior reigning CAA Player of the Year hit a pair of 3-pointers, sandwiched around six straight free throws, to score all but two of the Pride’s points during a game-closing 14-2 run over the final 4:09.
Even from his own close-up view from the Hofstra bench, Claxton wasn’t aware of exactly how dominant Wright-Foreman was 19 years and three days after Claxton and Hofstra opened the same building (then Hofstra Arena) with a 28-point win over Boston University.
“I didn’t even know that,” Claxton said. “He had 27 out of the 35? Wow! That’s crazy, that’s in-freakin’-sane! The kid was locked in. He wouldn’t let us lose.”
Before Wright-Foreman saved Hofstra (13-3, 3-0 CAA) offensively, the Pride had to stop the Huskies (7-8, 1-2 CAA) defensively to overcome a late nine-point deficit after letting a 10-point first-half lead slip away.
Leading 70-61, Northeastern was held without a field goal while committing three turnovers and missing its last four shots over the final 5:10.
Long before that, Wright-Foreman started slowly as Hofstra fell behind, 7-2. He didn’t score until he recorded the last five points of a 15-2 run that put the Pride up, 17-9. That lead was extended to 34-24, but Wright-Foreman (despite leading all scorers with 15 points at halftime), committed a foolish foul on a mid-court heave at the first-half buzzer, which allowed the Huskies to make two of three free throws and get within 40-34 at intermission.
That merely helped set the stage for Wright-Foreman to send the home crowd into a frenzy 20 minutes later.
After two Wright-Foreman free throws gave Hofstra a 72-70 lead with 1:28 left, junior guard Shawn Occeus (13 points) tied the game at the line, 72-72, only 13 seconds later.
Wright-Foreman and junior guard Bolden Brace (team-high 17 points) traded 3-point misses in the final minute, but Northeastern grabbed an offensive rebound off of Brace’s miss to give their leading scorer and best player, senior point guard Vasa Pusica (who scored 10 of his 11 points in the second half), a chance to win the game.
However, Pusica missed a straightaway 3-pointer over Wright-Foreman with 4.3 seconds left. Graduate forward Jacquil Taylor alertly tapped the loose ball toward the foul line, to Wright-Foreman, who quickly pushed the ball up the floor with three dribbles before launching a shot from just above the “R” in the Hofstra mid-court logo over an outstretched Pusica.
“We had a timeout left,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “We said in the huddle, ‘We’re going to stop them and get a rebound and just go’ rather than call a timeout and try to get some play that probably wouldn’t work.”
That proved to be a good choice when Wright-Foreman’s prayer glanced off the glass and through the net as the final buzzer sounded.
While the play enthralled most in the arena, it was somewhat routine for Mihalich, who said, “I don’t know if ‘impossible’ and ‘shot’ go together with Justin. He makes shots every day [in practice or in games] and you would say just that. ‘That was impossible.’ But he made it. He’s just a marvelous, marvelous basketball player. Every game, every day, he does something big and you just say, ‘Wow.’”
Although he’s used to impressing his coach, Wright-Foreman was still excited when he entered the postgame press conference room and jubilantly exclaimed, “That’s the way to ring in the new year!”
Wright-Foreman’s heroics helped Hofstra begin 2019 the way the Pride ended 2018 (with nine straight wins).
Getting a 10th consecutive victory gives Hofstra (the last remaining unbeaten team in the CAA this season) its longest winning streak and best record after 16 games since joining the CAA in 2001-02, two years after Claxton’s final year playing for the school.
It’s those types of things — along with the manner in which the Pride beat the Huskies — that have some starting to think the stars might be aligned for Hofstra to reach its first NCAA tournament since Claxton’s first season (2000-01) in the NBA as a 20th overall draft pick.
“I think when you’re having a good year, you’re going to have a win like that,” Mihalich said. “You just find a way to win. Our guys did that… a lot of people thought we were dead in the water, except us.
“We rallied, we believed in ourselves and we did what we had to do in those last four minutes. I keep saying this, but good teams find a way. There’s a lot of ways we could’ve lost and we just found a way to win. If we end up having one of those special years, you’ll look back and say, ‘Here’s why – we made an impossible shot to beat Northeastern.’ [for example].”
That shot, Wright-Foreman said, was “by far the best play” of his basketball career at any level.
Recounting how he was mobbed in the corner of the court by his teammates, Wright-Foreman added, “That’s a great feeling… we’re super close. We’re brothers on this team. It’s not just a team, we’re family. They rushed me and I didn’t know what was going on, but I’m just happy we got the win.”
Asked of he thought his game-winner was going in, Wright-Foreman candidly answered, “No, I didn’t. I just didn’t want to miss. I just tried to get a good shot… I just wanted to get as close to the basket as possible.”
Scoring in double figures for a 69th straight game, Wright-Foreman (who was the only player to play every second of the game) tied Alcindor for 21st on the all-time men’s Division I list and second-place on the all-time active list. “It’s an extreme honor,” Wright-Foreman said. “I’m just blessed to be in a position to be here at Hofstra. I just love being here.”
Neither that accomplishment nor the chance to break his previous career high of 39 points (against Elon last season) swayed Wright-Foreman’s primary focus.
“I wasn’t really looking at my personal score,” he said. “I was taking a mental note of the score of the game… to just try and chip away [at the deficit], and just play the game. My goals are team-oriented. To hit 40 [points], it’s an honor, but I’d rather get the win with my teammates.”
While that was certainly true, Mihalich divulged a slightly different take on Wright-Foreman becoming the first Hofstra player in eight seasons to score at least 40 points (the school’s all-time leading scorer, Charles Jenkins, scored 40 points in overtime at Binghamton, in 2010) and setting a new building record (surpassing Claxton’s 40 points against Hartford two weeks after the arena opened).
“He went right to Speedy and told him, the second he did it,” Mihalich said, which prompted Wright-Foreman to put his head down and laugh.
“It’s been a long time since anybody’s done that [for Hofstra], but I’m happy to have seen it in person and I mean, the kid is playing great right now,” said Claxton, who sits in seventh-place on Hofstra’s all-time scoring list with 2,015 points, just 209 points ahead of Wright-Foreman, who moved within a dozen points of David Taylor for eighth-place.
“He’s probably going to break all my records,” Claxton added. “I don’t know why, but the kid is obsessed with breaking my records. Each and every game he has these high-scoring games, he tells me, ‘I’m coming for you, Speedy.’ So, he probably will pass me, and I hope they don’t stop the game and make it a big deal. Just let him pass me and keep it moving.”
Not that Claxton isn’t a fan of Wright-Foreman’s play.
“The kid is special,” Claxton continued. “He’s a very special player and so locked in and focused. He wants to get to that next level and it’s showing.”
A big part of the Pride’s success this season has been taking some of the burden off of Wright-Foreman and relying on him a bit less than last year while sharing the wealth a bit more.
Hofstra’s win over Northeastern was a rare exception to that approach this year, with Taylor (10 points) being the only other player to score in double figures and Wright-Foreman taking 22 more shots than any other Hofstra player.
But with junior guard Eli Pemberton (eight points), senior point guard Desure Buie (seven points) and junior guard Tareq Coburn (five points) combining to shoot just 7-for-22, Wright-Foreman stepped up when needed.
“It’s usually well-balanced, but a couple of the other guys just didn’t have good shooting games and that’s what special players do,” Claxton said. “When other guys aren’t having the type of games that they normally have, that makes [players like Wright-Foreman] raise their own level of play, and that’s what he did today.”
Although he made half of his 30 field goal attempts (including four of seven shots from 3-point range) and eight of nine free throws, while tying Coburn with a team-best seven rebounds, Mihalich still found some constructive criticism to offer, to which Wright-Foreman humbly nodded in agreement.
“I think Justin didn’t have one of his great games,” Mihalich said. “He scored, but I think he took some shots that he probably shouldn’t take. I think Justin’s had some games where he’s scored 25 or 28 or something like that and [was] even more efficient than [today].”
Keeping in perspective one of the greatest individual scoring performances in Hofstra history, Mihalich had some more advice for his best player, which he earlier passed on to the star Wright-Foreman took the leadership mantle from, and which Mihalich plans to offer to the player who will eventually do the same from Wright-Foreman.
“Here’s what I’ve said to Justin, and I’ve said it to Juan’ya Green, and next year I’ll say it to Elijah,” Mihalich said. “‘You’ve already done all the individual things. Climb up the ladder and cut the nets down. That’s what you’ve got to do.’ Justin’s going to have a chance to be in the NBA. He’s going to break all these scoring records. The thing he hasn’t done is climb that ladder, and that’s what he’s thinking about.”
The way he and Hofstra are going lately, Wright-Foreman may also finally achieve that ultimate team accomplishment before he’s done setting personal records.