HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — When you’ve been the team to beat in your conference all season long, not every win is going to be a work of art. Sometimes, all that matters is adding yet another victory, however it can be achieved.
After beating the Towson Tigers by 23 points on the road six games earlier, the Hofstra Pride — as 15-point favorites against the same team at home — trailed for 28:46, led for only 12:33, were dominated in the paint (54-26), missed 26 of a school-record 40 shots from 3-point range, trailed by 10 points with less than nine minutes left in regulation and were down six points in the first of two overtime sessions.
But after overcoming a lackluster pre-game walkthrough which carried over to its Colonial Athletic Association matchup with Towson (10-18, 6-9 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex on Thursday night, first-place Hofstra (23-5, 13-2 CAA) forced overtime with a 21-11 run, rallied with a 10-2 spurt in the first extra frame and scored all nine points in the second overtime to win, 91-82, and remain two games ahead of second-place Northeastern with three regular-season games left.
Including the win at Towson, the Pride — which remained unbeaten (15-0) at home this year while extending its home court winning streak to 18 straight games — has had its share of easy victories, with seven CAA wins this season coming by at least 14 points.
But to run through a conference schedule nearly unscathed, there are bound to be some close calls (Hofstra has had a few of those, too) and times when a team finds ways to win in spite of itself.
As a realistic yet relieved head coach Joe Mihalich put it, “There are a lot of reasons that we could’ve lost or should’ve lost, but we didn’t. At the end of the day, it’s about walking off the floor and getting that ‘W.’”
Ultimately, 28 points from senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, 17 points off the bench from sophomore guard Jalen Ray (on the strength of 5-for-9 shooting from 3-point range), 16 points, a game-high nine assists and three steals from senior guard Desure Buie (on his 22nd birthday), and 14 points, and game-bests of 17 rebounds and seven blocks from graduate transfer forward Jacquil Taylor were enough to push Hofstra past Towson far more arduously than expected.
What should’ve been an easier time for Hofstra was instead hampered by a poor tone set hours before the opening tipoff.
“We just didn’t do a good job with our day, walkthrough, focus, concentration, attitude, that kind of stuff,” said Mihalich, who also noted a silver lining in facing unanticipated adversity.
“We’ve got to learn from this,” Mihalich continued. “One of our assistants just said, ‘We’re upset and we won.’ That’s the trait of a good team.”
That quality was missing at the start, however, when the Tigers jumped out to a 14-6 lead after roughly five minutes, before the Pride responded to lead, 39-37, by halftime.
Reflecting on a loss in Hofstra’s previous game, an eight-point defeat at then-last place North Carolina-Wilmington, Mihalich said, “Other teams are gunning for us, and they should be. We’re in first place. People want to beat us. Wilmington beat us last week and they celebrated like they won the world championship… and that’s why we’ve got to approach these games the right way and respect everybody.”
Hofstra’s notion of taking Towson seriously waned early in the second half, as the Tigers played harder and outworked the Pride, with junior guard Brian Fobbs (team-high 29 points, six rebounds), redshirt junior forward Nakye Sanders (16 points, team-best 11 rebounds) and reserve forward Solomon Uyaelunmo (14 points) routinely beating Hofstra up inside.
After a Taylor layup put the Pride up by a point, the Tigers answered with 11 straight points to take the game’s largest lead, 61-51, with 8:37 left.
A pair of 3s from Ray and an additional one, from Wright-Foreman, keyed a 13-4 run which brought Hofstra to within 65-64 less than three minutes later.
Another Wright-Foreman 3-pointer tied the game, 68-68, with 2:50 left in regulation and gave the nation’s third-leading scorer 2,103 career points, moving him ahead of Rich Laurel for fifth-place on Hofstra’s all-time scoring list. Wright-Foreman (who barely missed scoring at least 30 points for a fourth straight time) finished the game with 2,117 career points, 31 short of Loren Stokes for fourth-place.
Buie tied the game, 70-70, on a jumper with 1:50 left in regulation and sank two free throws to regain the lead for Hofstra 15 seconds later, but Sanders tied the game again on a layup with 1:13 left.
Each team missed on its final possessions of regulation before Towson scored the initial six points of the first overtime.
Ray and Buie each hit 3-pointers to keep the Pride within two points before a pair of Buie free throws and a Wright-Foreman layup moved Hofstra ahead, 82-80, but a nice catch and tough layup through heavy traffic by Unyaelunmo with 9.1 seconds left, and Buie being stopped on a layup attempt on the next possession, led to a second overtime.
Hofstra finally took control from there, with a layup from Taylor, a jumper by Wright-Foreman, a game-sealing 3-pointer by Ray, an explosive Wright-Foreman driving dunk in the final minute and stifling defense which held Towson scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting in the second extra session.
That ending was a sharp departure from what took place earlier in the day.
“Our energy was way down,” Wright-Foreman said. “We weren’t talking. The whole aura of the whole walkthrough was wrong. That translated to the game, so we started off slow and then we dug ourselves a hole. But this team is full of fighters. We just want to win at all costs. The dog just came out in all of us, whether it was me, Jacquil, Desure, (junior guard) Elijah (Pemberton) or Coach running great plays to get people shots. It was just a great team win.”
Echoing Wright-Foreman’s thoughts with a cautionary tone, Mihalich added, “I didn’t like our attitude today and the approach, but we have a will to win… [we] refuse to lose. We just find a way. It’s a great quality, but we’re flirting with disaster if we don’t do a better job with our approach.”
Somehow, despite being focused enough to go through an overall 16-game winning streak this season and being close to winning the program’s second CAA regular-season title in Hofstra’s 18th year in the conference, the Pride seemed complacent.
“Monotony sets in,” Mihalich admitted. “This is our 28th time (this season) we had a walkthrough. It gets to be the same sound, the same tone. You’ve got to fight it because it’s important.
“The change has to be from within… today our guys just kind of blanked out, were nonchalant and laissez-faire, and it showed in the game. We hope we learn from it, but we’re not going to do anything different (preparation-wise). We’re going to act different, we’re going to approach it different, our attitude’s going to be better.”
Summing the day and the game up succinctly, Taylor said, “It just shows a true testament to all of our characters, that we just want to win… it wasn’t pretty, but a win’s a win.”
Perhaps more difficult than guarding against complacency, a greater challenge might be on Saturday, when Hofstra will try to balance needing a win to move even closer to a CAA regular season title and a top seed in next month’s CAA tournament with the emotions surrounding what is sure to be a touching Senior Day as Wright-Foreman plays possibly his final regular season home game (and possibly his last home game ever) against James Madison.
“It’s going to be hard to keep our composure,” Mihalich said. “It’s emotional. You go through so much, the ups, the downs, the good, the bad, the highs, the lows. You stand out there at half court with your athletic director and you look out and you see this kid walking toward you, and you’re just choking back the tears. It’s going to be that way with Justin. It’s that way every year. It’s going to be a time to celebrate, but it’s going to be hard to watch him walk out of here for the last time. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to handle that because it’s (also) a huge game (to win).”
Wright-Foreman, a native of nearby Queens, NY, who was recruited by former Hofstra great and current Pride assistant coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton, said, “It’s going to be very emotional for all of us… everybody here just welcomed me with open arms and I couldn’t be more thankful for everybody treating me the way they did — Coach believing in me, my teammates believing in me, Just to be in this moment, with my teammates, and to be able to play here, and I’m from here, it’s going to be very emotional. I’m just very appreciative to be in the situation I’m in.”
After responding to its first loss in 17 games with a 41-point home thrashing of Elon, the Pride has since shown some signs over its past four games (even while going 3-1) of being a little more beatable lately than when Hofstra was largely dominating the conference earlier in the season.
But if that seems like cause for concern, Mihalich insisted, “I don’t think we’ve peaked too soon. I’m hoping our best basketball’s still ahead of us.”