The Delaware Blue Hens gave fair warning the day before that they shouldn’t be counted out after a bad first half. Only this time, they were facing the two-time Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year and nation’s second-leading scorer, as well as the country’s second-best free throw shooting team.
One day after rallying from a 14-point halftime deficit to a six-point CAA quarterfinal upset win over fourth-seeded William & Mary, fifth-seeded Delaware (17-16, 8-10 CAA) nearly pulled off a similar feat against the top-seeded Hofstra Pride (27-6, 15-3) at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, SC on Monday night.
But as he had already done a few times this season, senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman put Hofstra on his back before he and his teammates could finally hold Delaware off, 78-74, in overtime.
Scoring a CAA tournament record 42 points on 15-of-30 shooting — including 23 of the Pride’s 29 points in the second half and 40 of his teams’ 67 points through regulation — Wright-Foreman did all he could to bring Hofstra to its third CAA final and second in four years. But he still needed some help in extra time.
Scoring the Pride’s only field goal in overtime, Wright-Foreman (who, with 2,269 career points, moved within seven points of Antoine Agudio for second-place on the all-time program scoring list) tied the game, 74-74, on a layup with 1:35 left.
Hofstra’s other nine points in overtime came from Wright-Foreman’s teammates at the foul line, led by junior guard Eli Pemberton and sophomore reserve guard Jalen Ray, who each made all four of their respective free throw attempts in overtime to finally hold off the feisty Blue Hens after Delaware stormed back on the strength of 62.5 percent shooting (15-for-24), including 70 percent (7-for-10) from 3-point range, in the second half.
The Pride wasn’t able to breathe easy until Ray put Hofstra up for good, 76-74, with two free throws and sophomore guard Kevin Anderson stepped on the baseline looking for a game-tying drive, before Ray iced the game and closed the scoring on a pair of free throws with 7.8 seconds remaining.
Ray said, “I thought, ‘Just focus. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for’ and to make these free throws. I pretend like I’m in the gym by myself, just practicing my free throws, and that’s what I did.”
The very tenuous final moments were a sharp departure from the home win by 45 points and the road victory by 22 points Hofstra had over Delaware to open and close its CAA schedule this season.
Time will tell in the final on Tuesday night, when Hofstra faces second-seeded Northeastern for the CAA championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but at least for the moment, it seems Wright-Foreman had exorcized some past CAA tournament demons by breaking the previous tournament record of 37 points, set by William & Mary’s Marcus Thornton in 2015 and equaled by UNCW’s Jordan Talley last year, each in wins over Hofstra.
CAA Coach of the Year, head coach Joe Mihalich said, “This sounds crazy, but I thought Delaware did a great job on Justin. For him to still get that many points, just speaks to how good a player he is. They had a good plan. He didn’t get any easy buckets. They were all really, really hard-earned. You’re running out of superlatives for Justin to [describe what] he did against a team that had a good plan.”
With its 27th win of the season, Hofstra set a school record for victories, eclipsing a 26-5 mark in 2000-01 (the last season the Pride went to the NCAA tournament, getting there for the second straight year out of the America East Conference) and a 26-7 record in 2005-06 (the year in which Hofstra made the first of its three visits to the CAA finals). The Pride’s most recent trip to the CAA championship game during Wright-Foreman’s freshman year, three seasons ago, when the current star was hardly used during a season when he totaled just 44 points.
Despite playing all but one minute against the Blue Hens, Wright-Foreman didn’t want to wait another night to get to the title game.
Still on the floor, immediately after beating Delaware, Wright-Foreman said, “I wish we could play right now.”
Later on, he said, “I’m definitely very anxious to play that game. I’ve been there before… we’re going to do the best that we can to play as hard as we can.”
Ray added, “These are the moments we practice for in the offseason. This is the main focus. I’m just really excited to play tomorrow.”
It’s already been a magical season for Hofstra, one that included what was at the time, the nation’s longest winning streak (16 games), the Pride’s first-ever outright regular-season title in its 18 years in the CAA and now a single-season school record for wins, along with several conference player or coach awards.
Yet it will all feel somewhat hollow if Hofstra can’t win it’s next game against a Northeastern team which handed the Pride its worst loss (by 14 points) of the season while holding Hofstra its lowest point total (61 points) of the year at home a few games after outplaying the Pride on the road, before Wright-Foreman led Hofstra back from nine points down with about four minutes, making a game-winning buzzer-beating, 35-footer.
Perhaps a good omen for Wright-Foreman and Hofstra is that Wright-Foreman scored 42 points on 15-of-30 shooting in the Pride’s win over Northeastern this season, just like he did on Monday night to reach a title game against the same team.
For now, Mihalich and his squad are thankful to have the opportunity they have in front of them.
“We’re going to really cherish this because it’s really hard to do,” Mihalich said. “Ask the eight [CAA] teams that are going home how hard it is to do this, and [for us] to do this two times in four years, we’re just so proud to do that. Ask any coach, ask any player. It’s hard to do this. To just have a chance is something that you have to cherish and enjoy, and we’re going to do that.”
Of course, that feeling can drastically change after 40 minutes, or a bit longer. But that sentiment could also turn into pure jubilation if Hofstra can get just one more CAA win this year.