The Hofstra Pride desperately needed this one.
After starting the season 20-4 on the strength of a 16-game winning streak, while recording 13 victories by at least 14 points, Hofstra won four of its next six games before its season finale at Colonial Athletic Association rival Delaware. But the Pride didn’t look like the same team.
In those recent half-dozen contests, Hofstra (25-6, 15-3 CAA) was taken to double overtime by ninth-place Towson (before winning) and lost in overtime to eighth-place James Madison, each at home.
In the other four games during that stretch, the Pride lost at last-place North Carolina-Wilmington by eight points; needed a record-setting, 37-point second half from its best player, senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, to rally past fourth-place William & Mary by six points at home; had to hang on for a four-point win at third-place Charleston after leading by 24 points with a little over 10 minutes left; and barely survived by three points at sixth-place Drexel when a 3-pointer missed at the final buzzer.
The main reason for the closer games and more frequent losses or close calls of late had been Hofstra’s failing defense, despite maintaining a dangerous offensive output.
Over its first 24 games this season, the Pride allowed over 75 points in regulation just three times, with all of those coming in Hofstra’s first seven games. But the Pride allowed at least 82 points over its next five games and 77 in the following one.
However, it was back to business as usual for Hofstra in its final regular season game on Saturday, in a dominant 92-70 win at Delaware.
After already clinching the top seed in the CAA tournament (in North Charleston, Mar. 9-12), Hofstra won 15 regular season conference games and an outright regular-season title for the first time during its 18 seasons in the CAA. The Pride also moved within a win of matching its school Division-I record, when Hofstra finished 26-7 in 2005-06 and 26-5 in 2000-01 (as a member of the America East Conference, the last time the Pride was an outright regular-season conference champion and reached the NCAA tournament, doing so for a second straight year).
But, more than anything, Hofstra needed to get back on track.
Winning by 22 points, while once again holding an opponent to under 76 points (as before), accomplished that.
“[There were] a couple of things that were motivating us today,” head coach Joe Mihalich said after his squad edged out preseason conference favorite, second-place Northeastern, by one game. “We wanted to have [the regular season title] to ourselves. We didn’t want to have to share that.
“The other thing we wanted to do was have a ‘feel-good’ win. Today, really was a statement win. We really feel good about ourselves. [It was a statement] not to anybody else, but to ourselves, that we’re [still] a pretty good team.”
A change from Hofstra’s usual 2-3 zone and matchup zone defenses to a man-to-man defense for much of the first half yielded big dividends in helping the Pride go on a 19-5 run, to lead, 26-12, and 44-31 by halftime.
Although foul trouble caused Hofstra to return to playing zone, and Delaware shot 57.1 percent (16-for-28), including 7-for-16 from 3-point range in the second half, the Blue Hens never got to the free throw line in the half, and the Pride’s tremendous offensive efficiency throughout the game — shooting 60 percent (33-for-55), including 47.1 percent from beyond the arc (8-for-17) and 90 percent (18-for-20) at the free throw line — was more than enough for Hofstra to get another much-needed blowout win.
“I thought we had great energy today,” Mihalich said. “I thought we were in attack mode, I thought we played with that swag you have to play with. I thought the enthusiasm, the energy, the emotion — the three ‘E’s,’ as we call them — were really good today.”
That the Pride (which opened its CAA schedule with a 45-point home win over Delaware on Dec. 28) was able to win so comfortably without much of a contribution from X-factor and fourth-leading scorer, junior guard Tareq Coburn, was also an encouraging sign.
Thrust into the starting lineup in place of junior forward Stafford Trueheart early in the season, Coburn became somewhat of an unexpected spark at each end of the floor for Hofstra. With Coburn as a catalyst, the Pride’s defensive energy picked up, while Coburn was rebounding well and providing some nice complementary scoring to Wright-Foreman, and Hofstra’s next two leading scorers, junior guard Eli Pemberton and senior point guard Desure Buie.
For a good portion of the season, the Pride went as Coburn went. When he played well, Hofstra generally won with ease. When Coburn struggled, so did his team, even in wins.
The latter was largely the case during the six-game stretch before the Pride’s final regular season game at Delaware. On Saturday, Coburn again went from X-factor to non-factor offensively, failing to score, on just two shots, in only 17 minutes (his fifth game scoring four points or fewer in the past seven).
Instead, sophomore guard Jalen Ray filled in nicely for Coburn, scoring in double figures while shooting 3-for-5 overall and 2-for-4 from 3-point range for a second straight game, while playing 30 minutes off the bench after logging 29 minutes in the same role the game before.
“When he goes on the floor, he makes us better,” said Mihalich, who has been lobbying for Ray to be voted the CAA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
At some point during the CAA tournament, Hofstra will likely have to rely on Coburn helping out as he did in the past.
Yet, regardless of that, finishing the regular season on a high note, while shaking off the effects of that fairly alarming six-game stretch, and getting back to playing the way it was used to, could serve Hofstra well.
If so, the Pride (picked third in the preaseason) will not only have accomplished a nice regular season goal of finishing first, but Hofstra (which does not seem in line for an at-large bid) could ride what it did in Delaware to returning to what the program was used to at the end of its America East days — finally winning a conference tournament and going dancing again.
“We’re going to enjoy the fact that we’re the regular season champs, but that’s not what all ten [CAA] teams really want,” Mihalich said. “All ten teams really want that conference championship and the bid to the NCAA tournament.”