HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Even with its best player cooking up a rare, unsavory dud, the Hofstra Pride found a way to reach a baker’s dozen.
Despite a 2-for-11 shooting start and being held about eight points below his season average of 26.9 points per game, senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman (19 points) made his last four shots while scoring in double figures for a 72nd consecutive time as junior guard Eli Pemberton netted a season-best and game-high 24 points to lead Hofstra to its 13th straight victory, 87-72, over the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks, at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night.
Hofstra, which had lost five of its previous six meetings with UNCW — a stretch that started with a gut-wrenching overtime loss in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament finals in 2016, and which ended with a disappointing defeat as a No. 3 seed to the sixth-seeded Seahawks in last year’s CAA quarterfinals — gained a measure of revenge with a strong second-half performance after falling behind 37-30 with 2:58 left in the first half.
Pemberton scored four straight points to ignite an 11-5 half-closing run which pulled the first-place Pride (16-3, 6-0 CAA) to within 42-41 of the Seahawks (7-12, 3-3 CAA) by halftime.
Reenergizing at intermission, Hofstra (which leads the CAA in scoring while ranking second in points allowed, behind Charleston) scored 12 consecutive points and clamped down defensively, holding UNCW 6:37 between points, after the Seahawks took their final lead, 51-50, on a close jumper by senior forward Devontae Cacok (UNCW’s leading scorer and rebounder), with 14:42 left.
“For a team that can score points, it’s really our defense that makes us a good team,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “[UNCW] enjoyed playing against us in the first half. In the second half, I thought we did a much better job. We made it harder for them to score. I’m proud of the defensive effort in the second half. I thought it was the reason we won the game.”
The key difference defensively, Pemberton said, was, “Just energy. That’s all it really [was]. We were a little bit slow in our [defensive] slides in the first half.
“The coaches usually give us a couple minutes [at the beginning of halftime] to talk amongst ourselves. We talked about our difficulties in the first half. We already knew the enemy in the first half, so we adjusted.”
That enemy was, “Our defense,” Pemberton added.
Admitting he was thinking about his team’s recent history against UNCW, Wright-Foreman said, “I’m gonna be honest. This was definitely personal. This is another rivalry that we have going on, so it was our job to come out and play with that intensity and obviously, we didn’t [do that] in the first half, but we already knew what we had to do in the second half.
“We went in the locker room and we talked to each other. We always say, ‘Zip-zip.’ It’s nothing-nothing every time we go into the locker room. That just gives us more energy to come out and play hard. We just feed off of each other… and it’s a trickle-down effect every time.”
With the Pride leading 54-51, Cacok (15 points, 10 rebounds) went to the bench with his fourth personal foul. Although he returned at the 7:44 mark for nearly five minutes, the 6-foot-7, 240-pounder failed to get another point or rebound the rest of the way.
“[Cacok’s] a terrific player,” Mihalich said. “He plays so hard all the time. I respect him for that. He rebounds, he scores and he’s a physical guy.”
But Hofstra was up to that challenge. “We paid a little more attention to him,” Mihalich said. “We tried to beat him to some spots.”
They did the same to the Seahawks when it came to getting into the paint offensively. That, coupled with a zone defense which forced UNCW to settle for jumpers, gave Hofstra a decided advantage at the free throw line, where the Pride (the country’s third-best free throw shooting team) went 23-for-26 and the Seahawks, 7-for-9.
“When we’re playing a zone, we’re not going to foul so much,” Mihalich explained. “We didn’t foul in the first half because we didn’t play hard enough to foul. We just tried to attack and get the basket, and make them guard us. We shoot the ball pretty good, but when we’re going to the basket, we’re even better.”
Although he missed his first five shots of the second half, Wright-Foreman helped Hofstra pull away after Cacok reentered the game.
He excited the crowd with an alley-oop dunk that pushed the Pride’s lead to 66-53, with 7:15 remaining. After missing his first three shots from behind the arc, Wright-Foreman scored six straight Hofstra points, making his last two 3-pointers, to extend the Pride’s advantage to 74-57, with 5:05 to go.
“Some people never score 19 [points] in a game,” Mihalich said of Wright-Foreman. “He has 19 in a game and we’re kind of apologizing for it. That speaks to what a great player he is.”
Indeed, a great player normally leading what lately has become a great team in the CAA, one which hasn’t lost since dropping a non-conference, two-point decision in overtime, at VCU, on Nov. 24.
“When we get going, and we’re playing hard, I don’t think anybody can stop us,” Pemberton said after Hofstra’s latest win.
Understandably confident words from a player whose team has handled pressure well during its long winning streak (having pulled out three wins in a row, two of which were decided on the final shot and another in triple overtime, before rallying to beat UNCW).
“It makes us work harder,” Pemberton said. “We’ve just got to embrace that. That’s all there really is to it.”
Wright-Foreman added, “We’re going to get everybody’s best shot every night, so it’s our job to be ready for that. It gives us more confidence — 13-game winning streak, we just want to keep that going. We’ve just got a bunch of hungry guys in that locker room.”
The next team which will try to end the Pride’s streak is Charleston, the defending CAA regular season and tournament champions, who will again host this year’s CAA tournament in March.
As Hofstra was beating UNCW, Charleston (14-5, 3-3 CAA) — picked second in the CAA, behind Northeastern, and one spot ahead of the Pride during the preseason — fell into a three-way, fourth-place tie with a nine-point loss at Northeastern.
While his players remain self-assured, Charleston’s latest loss makes Mihalich wary about his team’s next game.
“We’re going to see an angry, angry team on Saturday,” he said. “We better be ready for that. That’s a terrific team. They’re the defending champs. The championship goes through them. The league goes through them. They deserve it. It’s going to come down to the [CAA tournament] in March. Their [conference] record [right now] doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to play really well on Saturday just to have a chance to win.”
That may be true, but right now, ‘hungry’ seems like a better bet than ‘angry.’