HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Everything was set up well for a special day at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
The arena was packed and loud. The Hofstra Pride honored its seniors — including one of its best players in school history — during a touching pre-game ceremony. The Pride exploded during a huge run after halftime to seemingly take control of the game. And most of all, Hofstra was poised to simultaneously complete its home schedule undefeated while clinching at least a tie for the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title.
But sophomore guard Matt Lewis had other plans.
Far surpassing the 15.3 points per game he entered the day with, Lewis forced overtime with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer and led all scorers, recording 27 of his career-high 40 points after halftime, to lead the eighth-place James Madison Dukes (13-16, 6-10 CAA) to a stunning 104-99 overtime upset over first-place Hofstra (23-6, 13-3 CAA), whose 18-game home court winning streak came to a disappointing end on Senior Day.
Five games earlier, Hofstra scored 57 first-half points en route to an easy 41-point home win over Elon. Against James Madison, the Pride matched that output in the second half, yet lost while continuing a recent alarming trend of not being able to get defensive stops the way it used to.
Starting the season 20-4 (winning by double digits 14 times), Hofstra allowed over 75 points in regulation only three times, with all of those coming during a 4-3 start. But the Pride has suddenly surrendered at least 82 points (while going 3-2) in each of its past five games (needing big offensive performances to win by slim margins in three victories).
The defensive lapses finally caught up in familiar surroundings with Hofstra, which despite recording a program record 27 assists and shooting 54 percent (34-for-63) — including 76.9 percent (10-for-13) from 3-point range in the second half (following seven misses in eight attempts from behind the arc in the opening half) — lost its home finale after going 15-0 at The Mack this season.
Head coach Joe Mihalich said, “We can talk about the end of the game, the end of regulation, but I’ll tell you what I said to the team — we didn’t bring it today. I think it’s about attitude and effort. I don’t know if it was all the emotion and all the things that were going on (with Senior Day), but to me, that’s what it was.”
Complementing Lewis, redshirt senior guard Stuckey Mosely scored 13 of his 20 points after intermission. With Lewis scoring six points and Mosley five at the end, the duo combined for all but four of the Dukes’ 15 points in overtime.
“We didn’t guard at all,” Mihalich admitted. “That’s obvious, and it’s frustrating because we talked about how Lewis could have a big game, and we talked about how Mosley could have a big game. You have to take it personal defensively, and we didn’t.”
At a loss as to exactly why Hofstra has defended so poorly in recent games compared to a stretch that helped fuel what at one point was the nation’s longest active winning streak (16 games), Mihalich added, “We’ve got to find it [again] because we’ve got it. It falls under the category of attitude. Take it personal.”
As a Senior Day tribute, Mihalich gave senior forward (and usual reserve) Dan Dwyer and senior guard Kenny Wormley (who rarely plays) their only starts of the season, and at least with Wormley, it paid off.
Making his only two shots from the field, Wormley (who only played the first 5;29) scored five of Hofstra’s first seven points and added a nice assist to forward Jacquil Taylor (a graduate transfer student from Purdue, who was also honored before the game), to help stake the Pride to a 9-4 lead.
However, James Madison responded with a 26-12 run, triggered by a 17-4 spurt, to lead, 30-21, and the Dukes were up, 40-32, at halftime.
Sparked by usual x-factor, junior guard Tareq Coburn (who scored all of his 14 points in the second half), Hofstra went on a quick 20-4 run over the first 4:01 of the second half — keyed by 11 points from Coburn and the other nine from Wright-Foreman (on a trio of 3s) — to lead, 52-44.
But fueled mainly by Lewis, and helped by Mosely, James Madison hung around, as the Pride repeatedly failed defensively.
“We just didn’t do it at the defensive end,” Mihalich said. “When [we] score as much as we did at the start of the second half, we should’ve been taking control of the game.
“One of my assistants told me, it was twice in the second half that they scored eight times in a row. Who’s taking it personal there, you know?”
Mihalich didn’t think even a change in philosophy, such as trying to trap Lewis, might’ve helped.
“We play a lot of zone,” Mihalich said. “It’s hard to trap out of the zone… he took turns. He scored on everybody.”
Too dejected to elaborate, Wright-Foreman’s answers on what went wrong were curt.
“No energy, not playing defense,” he stated simply. “Too relaxed.”
When junior guard Eli Pemberton (15 points on just 4-for-12 shooting) recorded a three-point play, Hofstra seemed to be in good shape, taking its biggest lead, 77-68, with 6:18 remaining.
But Lewis immediately answered with a three-point play of his own, his first points in more than five minutes, and the first three of a dozen points he scored during a 14-4 James Madison run which put the Dukes up, 82-81, with 2:12 to go in regulation.
Coburn hit a right-corner 3-pointer to move Hofstra back in front, 85-82, with 40.8 seconds left in the second half and senior point guard Desure Buie (who was not honored before the game because he has eligibility left, and who had 12 assists and no turnovers following halftime after he had no assists and three turnovers in the first half) made a pair of free throws to maintain the same margin, at 87-84, with 16.1 ticks to go in regulation.
Buie made two more free throws to give the Pride an 89-86 lead with 3.8 seconds left, after which Mihalich called a timeout although James Madison had no timeouts left.
“My first thought is this — you need to make sure your team knows what to do, so we called a timeout for that reason,” Mihalich said. “Then, it’s about execution, and we didn’t execute… and that’s my fault.”
Instead of fouling and sending a Duke player to the line, the Pride played it out, allowing Lewis to take the inbounds pass from under James Madison’s basket and get to the right wing in the frontcourt, toward the corner, where Lewis made a tough 3-pointer to beat the buzzer and send the game to overtime.
“I wish we could have it over again,” Mihalich said. “I wish we would’ve taken the foul, but we didn’t execute. He shouldn’t have gotten the ball on the run and he shouldn’t have got the ball to where he could take a makeable shot.”
Wright-Foreman started the scoring in overtime with a 3-pointer that had him surpass Loren Stokes for fourth-place on the all-time Hofstra scoring list. He finished the game with 2,050 career points, two ahead of Stokes. Focused on his team goals, Wright-Foreman was completely unaware he had passed Stokes until he was informed of doing so well after the game.
Dwyer added a layup after Wright-Foreman’s trey and a Pemberton layup gave the Pride a 96-91 lead halfway through the overtime period, but the Dukes scored the next nine points on merely their next two trips.
As Mosely hit a left-corner 3, Pemberton fouled reserve sophomore forward Greg Jones (eight points, six rebounds), who sank two free throws to complete a five-point trip that tied the game, 96-96.
After Buie missed a layup, Lewis made a straight-away 3 and got fouled. He hit the ensuing free throw to move James Madison ahead for good, 100-96, with 1:31 remaining.
Hofstra could only get as close as 100-99 in the final minute since Wright-Foreman missed the first of two free throws before Dwyer made both of his on the Pride’s next possession.
Lewis extended the lead to three points before Wright-Foreman missed a 3-pointer with eight seconds left. Jones iced the game and closed the scoring with two free throws three seconds later.
Asked if his emotions encompassed disappointment or frustration, or if he was ticked off, Wright-Foreman responded to a reporter, “Everything you said is correct.”
Probed further about Hofstra’s inability to stop James Madison, a stoic Wright-Foreman chose only to look ahead to his team’s final two regular season games, both on the road next week, as the Pride seeks to hold off second-place Northeastern (one game behind Hofstra) and secure its second regular season title in the school’s 18 years in the CAA.
“We’ve got to get it done the next two games,” Wright-Foreman said. “(Sixth-place) Drexel and (fifth-place) Delaware, that’s all that matters at this point.”
Wright-Foreman was at least able to reflect positively on how the day began, after playing what he hopes will be his final home game (meaning Hofstra would make the NCAA tournament rather than settling for perhaps an NIT home game).
“Words don’t describe [it],” he said. “I’m just happy I got the opportunity to play here in front of the great fans that we have. Everybody welcomed me with open arms here. I just appreciate everybody, from my teammates, coaches, to you guys (media members). I appreciate being in this program.”
Mihalich was equally touched by the moment. “I was just trying not to cry,” he said.
Motioning to Wright-Foreman sitting to his left, Mihalich added, “I’m not going to lie. This guy’s incredible. It’s amazing what he’s done. To see him walk out there and know this would be the last time he plays here, people don’t understand. The highs, the lows, right now, it’s a low… hopefully on Thursday night, it’ll be a high. You go through all these emotions with these guys, you love ‘em like sons. They do so much for you, you try to do all you can for them, and to see them walk out there and know you’re not going to get to be with them much longer, it’s hard. It’s really hard, it’s really emotional.”
Something which brought out different sentiments was how to get Hofstra back on track defensively.
“We talk about it,” Mihalich said. “For [the defensive failures] to still happen, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just not getting through… it’s a soul-searching time right now. We’re still a game up with two to go, but right now we’ve got a bad taste in our mouths. I believe in this team and I think we’ll find it. I really do.”
Asked which might be tougher, to go on a long winning streak like Hofstra did earlier this season, or to regain that type of play after it’s been lost, Mihalich said, “I hope I can answer that question, because I hope we get it going again… I’m going to give a stock answer and say that whether you’re winning 16 in a row or just lost two out of three, it’s all about the next game.
Mihalich added, “We’re salty right now, we’re upset, we’re emotional, we’re angry, and we’ve got to take those emotions and deal with them, and use them to our advantage, and make sure that all the things that we don’t like about what’s going on, we change [for] these next two games on the road.”
If they can’t, one of the best seasons in Hofstra history could go to waste down the stretch.