HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — After the Charleston Cougars (the defending Colonial Athletic Association regular season and tournament champions) lost at Northeastern on Thursday night, head coach Joe Mihalich warned that his Hofstra Pride might be hosting an angry team on Saturday.
Charleston (14-6, 3-4 CAA) might be downright furious now.
With a chance to pull within two games of Hofstra (17-3, 7-0 CAA), the Cougars instead became the latest victim of an unrelenting Pride buzzsaw, which after an 86-72 victory over Charleston at the Mack Sports Complex, had Hofstra matching the seven straight wins it had out of conference with a seventh consecutive CAA triumph.
Advised after the game that second-ranked Michigan lost for the first time in 18 games this season, Mihalich, exclaimed, “Go Duke!” That’s where No. 4 Virginia was just getting started at the same time, putting a 16-0 record on the line.
Sure enough, Virginia later lost at Duke, leaving Hofstra — whose last defeat came exactly eight weeks ago, by two points, in overtime, at VCU on Nov. 24 — with the nation’s longest active winning streak.
Discovering yet another way to win during a 14-game streak — which has included huge blowouts victories, rallying late for a comeback, buzzer-beater win, getting by in triple overtime on the road and a few others somewhere in between — the Pride had good balance in overcoming a poor start against the Cougars.
With Charleston paying extra attention to senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman (the reigning CAA Player of the Year and the nation’s third-leading scorer) junior guard Eli Pemberton (season-best and game-high 26 points on 9 of 14 shooting) more than canceled out the offensive production of Charleston’s star junior guard, Grant Riller (team-best 24 points on 10 of 14 shooting).
But it wasn’t just Pemberton neutralizing Riller (and two additional points added to Riller’s scoring total from junior forward Jaylen McManus).
Everyone else who scored for the Cougars saw his equal in the scoring column for the Pride.
Wright-Foreman willingly flipped the normal roles of being the first and second options with Pemberton, scoring 19 points (on 6 of 10 shooting), to match the same from senior forward Jarrell Brantley.
Jacquil Taylor, a graduate transfer forward from Purdue, scored 16 points (on 7 of 11 shooting), and blocked three shots, to nullify the same scoring output from sophomore guard Brevin Galloway.
And even with smaller contributions, senior point guard Desure Buie’s six points and junior guard Tareq Coburn’s five points wiped out the same from senior guard Marquis Pointer and senior forward Nick Harris, respectively.
Added up, that’s 72 points apiece.
The difference came from sophomore guard Jalen Ray, who scored an efficient 14 points on just six shots while making four of five attempts from 3-point range off the bench.
“The star of the game today was Jalen,” Mihalich aptly noted. “Elijah was unbelievable, Justin was his usual self, but Jalen made big shots when we needed them. He had a lot of guts, a lot of courage, and we really needed somebody to give us a boost, and he did.”
That began in the first half when Ray made all three of his shots from behind the arc after Charleston scored the first seven points and Hofstra missed five of its first six shots.
Following its cold start, the Pride finished the half making 16 of 21 field goal attempts and ended the game shooting a sizzling 62 percent (31-for-50) overall, to more than offset the Cougars’ solid 51.9 percent (27-for-52) shooting.
Using a 16-8 run, Hofstra took a 42-29 lead before Charleston scored the last five points of the opening half.
The margin dwindled to as little as one point on three separate occasions before the midpoint of the second half, but Ray’s final 3-pointer capped and 18-6 spurt which gave the Pride a commanding 75-62 advantage with 5:26 left, and the Cougars never got closer than nine points thereafter.
“I think the key to the game was our poise and composure,” Mihalich remarked. “When [teams] go through some tough times, a lot of players will think about losing. Our guys don’t do that. They think about what they have to do to win and I think that’s what the good teams do, that’s what the good players do.”
Despite Hofstra extending its third-longest winning streak in school history (23 is the school record, and it’s 18 at the Division I level, in 2000-01), Mihalich didn’t think the Pride (which is off to its best start in CAA play since joining the league in 2001-02) had proven itself to everyone yet.
“You have to earn respect and there was no reason for [Charleston] to respect us until now,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ve got to the point where people respect us.”
While he’s pleased with the overall balance Hofstra has demonstrated, Mihalich knows Wright-Foreman and Pemberton will ultimately have to lead the Pride where it wants to go this season.
And he’s especially thankful that although Wright-Foreman has the ability to take over some games, he also can act as a welcome decoy to free up Pemberton at other times.
“It’s got to be fun if you can really play, and the other team’s gonna spend all their time on No. 3 (Wright-Foreman),” Mihalich said. “[Pemberton] could end up as a top 10 scorer in Hofstra history. He’s on his way, and he’s done it all the while by just enjoying the fact that [Wright-Foreman] gets all the attention and he can fly under the radar, and he gets his 17-20 points every night.”
Mihalich then continued, turning to Pemberton with a special message for him.
“Tonight, he went ahead and got 26 — which you’re welcome to do any night you want,” Mihalich said, drawing a laugh from all in the media room, including Pemberton and Wright-Foreman.
Mihalich’s pair of stars has no problem sharing the spotlight with each other, while they each have a mutual admiration for the other.
“I don’t think anybody in the country can guard Justin,” Pemberton said. “It doesn’t matter what they do… I feed off him regardless, so games like [this], when they’re playing really tough on him, I’ve just got to make the right decisions as a secondary playmaker.”
Wright-Foreman reciprocated, “I can say the same thing about [Pemberton]. I don’t think anybody in the country can guard him. He just brings exceptional energy to the court, especially when he’s playing the way he’s been playing [lately]. Very confident, attacking the basket, he’s getting back to the Eli Pemberton that we all know. It’s a great credit to him. He’s a workhorse… I love [playing] next to him.”
Just as they do on the court, the duo is willing to yield to each other with their postgame comments.
Asked why Hofstra has embraced its winning streak instead of feeling pressure from it, Wright-Foreman started to answer before turning it over to Pemberton.
He said, “It’s definitely a confidence thing, but go ahead.”
Picking up from there, Pemberton jumped in, “I think we just like being the hunted. Guys have just been working. That’s all it is. It’s no secret. We know that we’re the hunted now. I think we like it. I like it.”
Knocking off the team (UNCW) that ousted Hofstra from the 2016 CAA finals and last year’s CAA quarterfinals by a nearly identical score (87-71) as the Pride beat the Cougars by two days later, Wright-Foreman admitted, “This whole week was personal. We had a great week of preparation going into these games, so we knew what was at stake. It was really just our job to come out and bring the energy.”
Reminded of losing by six points after leading by 18 in the first half at Charleston last year, Mihalich said, “I think we’re different this year. There’s a different makeup, there’s a different chemistry, there’s a different vibe. Last year, we had a big lead, [Charleston] came back and we let it slip away. This year, I don’t think anybody [on our team] felt like we were going to do [that today].”
Leaving it up to his players is something in which Mihalich has a lot of confidence this season.
“You can watch miles of tape and come up with some actions and some plays that you think are going to work, but these guys have to execute, and they did [today],” Mihalich said. “They made good decisions, they made good strong moves when they had to, they made shots when they had to, and these guys did a great job.”
Echoing Mihalich’s sentiments about the strong bonds which have buoyed Hofstra’s winning streak, Wright-Foreman said, “We’re extremely proud of what we’ve got going on here. We’ve just got to keep riding the wave that we’re on. Like Coach said, the chemistry in the locker room is great both on and off the court. That’s a great credit to what we’re doing on the court. We’ve just got to keep at it.
While some teams might not want to discuss a prolonged winning streak while they’re in the middle of it, the Pride has taken a more light-hearted approach.
“We’ve decided to just have some fun with this,” Mihalich said. “It could end on Thursday (in Hofstra’s next game at eighth-place James Madison). If we don’t play well on Thursday, we’re going to lose. You might as well talk about it, you might as well have some fun with it. Our goal wasn’t to win 14 in a row. Our goal was to be good in March and hopefully, climb up the ladder and cut down the nets — same goal as the other nine teams [in the CAA]. But we’re having some fun with [the winning streak]. We might as well. Everybody else is talking about it [anyway].”
Preparing for Hofstra’s longest road trip of the season (a three-game stretch which ends at Northeastern, to kick off a challenging period of five road games over the Pride’s next seven contests), Mihalich was cautionary about some possible pitfalls through which Hofstra will have to navigate in order to sustain its success.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve done, but we haven’t even played everybody [in the CAA] once yet.” Mihalich said. “We’ve got a bunch of road games coming up… so we’ve got to get better if we want to keep this going.”
Although that will likely be the case, Hofstra can continue that journey knowing it’s now the hottest team in the nation.