HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — With eight seconds left at a sold-out Mack Sports Complex on Saturday, Justin Wright-Foreman missed an easy layup he expected to make. It was about the only thing the senior star guard didn’t accomplish from a scoring standpoint.
Using a second-half performance for the ages, the nation’s third-leading scorer carried the Hofstra Pride from three separate 10-point second-half deficits to a 93-87 Colonial Athletic Association win over the William & Mary Tribe.
By his own high standards, Wright-Foreman’s good first half (for most other players), when he scored a team-leading 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting, was pedestrian. But it might have been viewed as a sign of things to come after halftime, since the reigning CAA Player of the Year was limited to only 12 first-half minutes after committing two fouls.
Yet, what followed was still somewhat unimaginable, as Wright-Foreman (who played every second of the second half) set or tied several game or career records or milestones while scoring 37 of Hofstra’s first 49 points during the Pride’s 53-point second half to push his team to its second straight win and 18th victory in 19 games.
Along the way, Wright-Foreman:
- Reached 2,001 career points on a pair of free throws, with 13:33 left, to pull Hofstra (21-4, 11-1 CAA) within 60-55 after William & Mary (9-16, 5-8 CAA) took its third 10-point lead of the second half.
- Sank the first of two free throws to simultaneously reach 2,016 career points — passing assistant coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton for seventh-place on Hofstra’s all-time scoring list — while giving the Pride its first lead (72-71) since Hofstra led 11-10, and the lead for good, with 7:10 remaining.
- Made two clutch free throws with 2:33 left, to give Hofstra an 84-81 lead, to reach 43 points in the game and surpassed his own previous career-high of 42 points in a home win over Northeastern on Jan. 5.
- Set a new Hofstra Division I scoring record (surpassing Demetrius Dudley in the 1992-93 season) when he reached 45 points in the game on a nice drive through traffic that put the Pride up, 86-81, with 1:59 to go.
- Appropriately on Throwback Day, finished with 48 points to match Hofstra’s school record set by Bill Thieben in a game against Wilkes during the 1954-55 season.
- Scored his final points of the game on a 3-pointer with 1:14 left, to put Hofstra up, 89-83 (before his teammates iced the game at the free throw line over the final 34 seconds), setting a new record for points in a CAA conference game.
Most importantly, Wright-Foreman’s extremely efficient 16-for-24 shooting — including 7-for-12 from 3-point range — canceled out the same from junior forward Nathan Knight, who led the Tribe with a career-high 39 points and 14 rebounds.
“Knight was willing his team to win and Justin went off and started willing our team to win,” Claxton said. “It was like, alright, who’s going to will his team to win the most?”
“Trying” was the operative word, head coach Joe Mihalich used, in dealing with Knight. He added, “We never did control him. I felt like we couldn’t touch him, they felt like they couldn’t touch Justin, and so it probably balanced out.”
Graduate forward Jacquil Taylor was mainly tasked with attempting to stop Knight, who drew 11 of Hofstra’s 18 fouls.
“It was very hard,” Taylor admitted. “He’s a very good player. He’s very talented. I was just trying to do the best I could.”
While he had trouble with that, Taylor (an otherwise defensive anchor for Hofstra this season) took some of the pressure off of Wright-Foreman by contributing 11 points, on 5-of-6 shooting, and a game-high 15 rebounds.
As Knight did most of his damage in the paint, Wright-Foreman scored from seemingly everywhere, with an array of sizzling shooting, deft ball handling, shaking defenders to create space, using screens well and getting to the free throw line, where he went 9-for-11 after drawing six fouls (all in the second half).
Although Wright-Foreman failed to record an assist, rebound, steal or blocked shot, his scoring prowess — fueled by an unrelenting desire to win — was enough to keep Hofstra two games ahead of preseason CAA favorite Northeastern two-thirds of the way through the conference schedule.
Sitting at the postgame press conference with Taylor to his right and Wright-Foreman on the other side, Mihalich said, “The guy to my left was not going to let us lose. I’m not saying anybody else wasn’t doing the same thing, but No. 3 (worn by Wright-Foreman) was not gonna let us lose the game.”
Focused on coaching his team to a win, Mihalich admitted that it was difficult not to marvel at Wright-Foreman’s second-half show, despite having coached other great scorers, such as Lionel Simmons, when Mihalich was an assistant at LaSalle (where Mihalich spent 17 years at that level before coaching his 657th game as a head coach on Saturday).
“Without thinking about hundreds of games, I can’t think of a performance like that,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be an assistant coach for a guy who was the third all-time leading scorer in the history of the game, a guy named Lionel Simmons, who scored [3,217] points. He never did this (what Wright-Foreman did in the second half on Saturday). I coached two guys who led the country in scoring. They never did this. It’s such a big moment, but it wasn’t just getting the 48. Every bucket was hard. There were no breakaway layups, [etc.]. As a coach, you try not to also be in awe.”
Reminded of Wright-Foreman scoring 27 of Hofstra’s 35 second-half points in the Jan. 5 win, Claxton said, “The kid is incredible. When you think he surprises you, he throws you an even bigger surprise the next game. He’s playing fantastic basketball. I wasn’t really counting his points in the second half, but I knew he was scoring at a rapid pace. I said, ‘Let me go see how many points he has.’ I was like, ‘Whoa!’ He’s a gifted scorer.”
Claxton added of Wright-Foreman, “I kind of knew he was going to have a big second half. I didn’t know it was going to be that big, but he just had that look in his eye like, ‘Nah, we’re not losing today. Get me the ball. I’m about to win it for us.’”
Underscoring Wright-Foreman’s ability to carry his team on his back is that he helped Hofstra win in a game during which the Tribe led for 26:49 and the Pride for just 9:54.
Despite William & Mary’s underwhelming record this season, Mihalich expected another difficult clash during a series which has had nine of the past 11 meetings decided by six points or less, with six of those decided by three points or less and three games going to overtime (including Hofstra’s triple-overtime win at William & Mary on Jan. 10).
“You just knew,” Mihalich said. “You wake up in the morning, whenever you have a William & Mary game, you just know it’s going to be like it was today.”
Wright-Foreman didn’t feel the need to specifically match Knight’s production, but he felt he had to provide a spark for the Pride.
“I just knew I had to bring my energy,” he said. “That’s really what it was. I felt like our energy was down and I came in the huddle and was like, ‘Our energy’s way low. We’re not even playing real basketball right now.’ In the second half, that’s when everybody started turning it on.”
Of course, scoring-wise, that mostly came from Wright-Foreman.
That is, except for that missed layup at the end, which would have allowed Wright-Foreman to tie Hall of Famer David Robinson’s overall single-game CAA record of 50 points (in a 1987 NCAA tournament loss to Michigan).
Laughing and putting his head in his hands, Wright-Foreman said, “I knew I had that. I don’t know how I missed that, honestly.”
Claxton said, “I wish he would have got 50 because it looks a little nicer, but 48 is just as good. If that was me, I’d tell everybody I got 50. You gotta round up.”
All season long, Wright-Foreman has half-jokingly, half-promised Claxton (who recruited Wright-Foreman), “I’m coming for you.’”
Even needing 34 points (eight above his season average of 26 per game), Wright-Foreman gave Claxton the same warning before playing William & Mary.
“I just gave him a hug (after the game),” Wright-Foreman said. “I told him before the game, ‘I’m gonna pass you.’ I gave him a hug and he said, ‘Thank you.’”
Wright-Foreman had especially been ratcheting up his cautioning for Claxton more recently.
“I’d been hearing that for the last couple of days,” Claxton said. “I was like, ‘Alright, he’s [nearly] 40 away from me. He won’t get it today.’ I thought I was safe for one more game. At least he won’t do it at home. They won’t announce it.”
But, of course, then Hofstra public address announcer Siddique Farooqi (who honored the Pride’s past by announcing the home team as the Hofstra College Flying Dutchmen) did, to the delight of the raucous home crowd.
“I was just happy for him,” Claxton said, before joking, “I told him if I had known he was going to be breaking my records, I might not have recruited him.”
After finally passing his mentor, Wright-Foreman said, “It means a lot, especially to do it here at Hofstra. I just want to thank my coaches and guys like [Hofstra Sports Information Director] Stephen Gorchov for giving me a chance and believing in me. Speedy recruited me, and to be able to surpass him is incredible. I’m kind of at a loss for words right now.”
Wright-Foreman did articulate some other thoughts on what he was able to accomplish, though.
“It just comes with my coaches and my teammates believing in me, and just trusting me with the ball in my hands,” he said. “That’s really it. I couldn’t ask for anything else… I couldn’t ask for any better teammates or a better coaching staff.”
That was a reciprocal feeling from Claxton’s view.
“I can take a little bit of credit, but most of it goes to him,” Claxton said. “He’s a hard worker. He really works at his craft and [how he plays] is proof.”
As he showed while trying to increase his team’s energy, Wright-Foreman’s leadership goes beyond his play.
Taylor, who transferred from Purdue, said, “Positive vibes translate at every level. If you’re positive, then your team is positive. If you’re negative, it can go downhill. What [Justin] does is helps us all be positive, and it all goes up from there.”
Wright-Foreman is not only Hofstra’s best player, but the embodiment of what the Pride is seeking this season, as it chases Hofstra’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2000-01 (the year after Claxton led the school to the NCAA tournament as a senior and the season before Hofstra began play in the CAA).
“This team just has a will to win and they have a “refuse-to-lose” mentality, and this team does want more,” Mihalich said. “That was our battle cry in the locker room… we want our best basketball to be ahead of us, not behind us… we know we have to keep getting better.”
Hofstra will be forced to do that the rest of the way, mainly away from home, where the Pride has won 17 straight, is 14-0 this year and only has two games remaining. So, the same type of noise that aided Hofstra’s comeback against William & Mary won’t be there for when games will matter the most, especially in the CAA tournament next month.
Mihalich greatly appreciated the home crowd’s liveliness on Saturday.
“The crowd won the game for us,” Mihalich said. “They were unbelievable. The student section was terrific, everybody here was terrific. The baseball team was unbelievable. They had like 40 strong here and they got everybody going.
“I’m going to say this kiddingly, but we live in a day and age when college students aren’t supposed to drink [at games]. Back in the day, they would come and they would be all beered up and everybody would be crazy. [Today, it] was just genuine energy… it was good sober energy. They played a big role. It motivated us. We just couldn’t let them leave unhappy.”
Wright-Foreman made sure of that.