Despite a string of impressive accomplishments during one of the best seasons in Hofstra Pride history, the preseason poll and Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich were ultimately right.
A couple of days before the Northeastern Huskies ended Hofstra’s 16-game winning streak on Feb. 2, Mihalich declared that the Colonial Athletic Association preseason favorite Huskies were the team to beat in the conference.
Much to the dismay of Mihalich and his team, that feeling came to fruition more than five weeks later.
Although Hofstra (27-7, 15-3 CAA) set a school record for victories in a season, won its first outright CAA regular-season title during its 18 years in the league, and had the CAA Coach of the Year, a two-time CAA Player of the Year (in senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman), the CAA Defensive Player of the Year (in senior guard Desure Buie), a Second Team All-CAA selection (in senior guard Eli Pemberton), a Third Team All-CAA selection (in Buie) and a CAA All-Defensive Team selection (in graduate transfer forward Jacquil Taylor), Northeastern (23-10, 14-4 CAA) proved both the preseason poll and Mihalich right with an 82-74 NCAA tournament bid-clinching victory over Hofstra in the CAA tournament championship game between the CAA’s top two seeds in North Charleston, S.C. on Tuesday night.
In a matchup of former America East Conference foes, the Huskies came away with their second CAA tournament title in the past five seasons, while the Pride — which added to its CAA championship game losses in 2006 and 2016 — continues to seek its first as its NCAA tournament drought (barring a highly unlikely at-large invitation) appears to have reached 18 years.
Serbian senior guard and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Vasa Pusica, broke Hofstra’s collective back, scoring all 21 of his points from behind the arc, where he drained a career-best seven 3-pointers on 12 attempts.
However, it’s what the Pride allowed the Huskies to do with Pusica on the bench which dug too big of a hole out of which to climb.
After trailing 12-5, Hofstra drew within 15-12 by the time Pusica had to sit with two fouls and six points (on 2-for-4 3-point shooting) just before the midpoint of the opening half.
Pusica didn’t return until the start of the second half. By that time, Northeastern had gone on a 25-10 run, to lead by as much as 40-22, before settling for a 42-26 lead at halftime, on the strength of 53.6 percent shooting (15-for-28) while limiting Hofstra to just 28.1 percent shooting (9-for-32) in the half. Wright-Foreman, after starting only 1-for-7, was just 3-for-12 at intermission.
But Wright-Foreman, who scored 23 of the Pride’s 29 second-half points (en route to a single-game CAA tournament record 42 points) in Hofstra’s semifinal overtime win over fifth-seeded Delaware the night before, and who scored 27 second-half points to rally the Pride to a home win over the Huskies on Jan. 5, scored 21 second-half points on 6-for-10 shooting, while going 9-for-10 at the free throw line after failing to get to the line in the first half.
Scoring 11 points in less than 11 minutes, Wright-Foreman keyed a 28-12 surge which tied the game, 54-54, with 9:13 remaining.
Yet, as much as the Pride was able to fight back, Hofstra’s only leads in the game came early on, at 3-2 and 5-4.
A Pusica 3-pointer with 8:50 left put Northeastern ahead to stay, 57-54. Another Pusica 3 kept Hofstra at bay, 66-58, with 5:38 to go, and yet another Pusica trey, at the 3:58 mark, capped a 17-6 run, to extend the lead to 71-60.
Wright-Foreman drew the Pride within 71-66 on a pair of free throws with 2:03 left, but Pusica’s final 3-pointer, on the next possession, helped put the game out of reach, at 74-66, as the Pride never got closer than within six points thereafter.
While Wright-Foreman finished with 29 points, accounting for 39 percent of Hofstra’s scoring, Northeastern had much better balance, as three different Huskies complemented Pusica with 11 points each, and sophomore guard Bolden Brace (10 points, team-best 10 rebounds and a game-high nine assists) narrowly missed a triple-double.
“We’re very disappointed,” a disheartened Mihalich said after the loss. “You only get so many chances in life to do something like this, and we had our chance, and came up short. It’s gonna be one of life’s lessons. We’ll have to learn to deal with this. You’ve got to deal with the good times, the bad times, the highs, the lows – that’s what sports does, that’s what the world of college athletics does. These guys are really hurting right now, we’re all really hurting right now, but… we have to own it.
“You’ve got to give congratulations to Northeastern. They were the better team tonight. They played two halves, we played one… we didn’t play in the first half.”
Pemberton (the only other Hofstra scorer in double figures besides Wright-Foreman, with 15 points) added, “We felt that we still had a chance to win the game, but this game honors toughness. Northeastern played the right way in two halves, we only played the right way in one.”
Mihalich was at a loss as to why Hofstra struggled so much in the first half.
“I don’t know,” he said. “These guys seemed ready to go. They were excited to play. It’s hard to answer. The reason we won 27 games was because of energy and effort, and toughness… we just didn’t have that [in] the first half.
“I couldn’t be more proud of how our team played in the second half. We were down and out. We could’ve packed it in and we tied it up… which was an incredible thing to do against a really good team. But, the first half, we didn’t play.”
That was too much to think about for an inconsolable Wright-Foreman, who reached three big milestones during the game.
The nation’s second-leading scorer set a new Hofstra record with 919 points for the season, passing the 908 points Rich Laurel scored in 1976-77. Wright-Foreman also passed Hall of Famer David Robinson’s CAA single-season scoring record of 903 points (in 1986-87) and became Hofstra’s second all-time leading scorer, with 2,298 career points.
But none of that was of any consolation to Wright-Foreman, who was too broken up to explain how the Pride was able to storm back so quickly in the second half.
Instead, Pemberton jumped in, saying, “I’ll answer for him. We got in the locker room and our strength coach, he gathered us up, and spoke some words to us that I can’t really recite here. We just dug deep. We knew we didn’t play well for those first 20 minutes. We just thought, ‘Why not? We’ve been here before, we’ve been down big before, why can’t we just pull together as a team, work hard for these next 20 minutes and play how Hofstra Basketball is supposed to be played?’”
For a while, they did. But not quite long enough.
“It stings right now,” said Mihalich, looking ahead to an expected National Invitation Tournament bid (which is guaranteed to Hofstra as CAA regular season champions) rather than considering the very slight possibility of receiving an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
“It’s not the one [we want],” Mihalich added. “You want to be cutting the nets down and be going to the NCAA tournament, but it’s an honor, and you earn your way into the NIT. It used to be if you knew all the guys in New York that smoked cigars and drank scotch, they’d put you in the NIT because you were their buddy. You earn your way in now, and we’ve earned our way into a really, really good tournament. You’ll see the field. It’ll be unbelievable.”
Tempering his disappointment at likely missing the NCAA tournament, Mihalich is hopeful to reach the NIT semifinals at nearby Madison Square Garden.
“One game at a time, but if [we] can ever get to the Garden, that would be an incredible experience for our guys,” he said. “We’re going to do all we can to do that to see if we can do something special because this is a special team… and we’re going to lick our wounds and get our heads together and get ready to play in a really special tournament.
Finally able to gather his emotions enough to speak, Wright-Foreman added, “It’s something to look forward to. [I’ll] just stay positive. I’m just going to continue to be the leader that I have been all year.”
And then maybe, albeit not in the way Hofstra had hoped, the Pride can still at least continue its great season a while longer.