HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Life after Justin Wright-Foreman might be tougher than originally advertised for the Hofstra Pride.
Despite losing one of the best players in Colonial Athletic Association history to the NBA’s Utah Jazz, the Pride was set to prove right those who picked Hofstra to repeat as CAA regular-season champions this year.
Vegas believed in the Pride too, installing Hofstra as an 18½-point favorite to beat the visiting San Jose State Spartans in the season opener for both teams before a sellout crowd of 4,223 at the David S. Mack Sports Complex on Wednesday night.
However, none of that intimidated San Jose State.
The Spartans (1-0) — coming off consecutive horrid seasons with 4-26 and 4-27 marks over the past two years, respectively, and who were picked to finish last in the 11-team Mountain West Conference this season — surprisingly hung with Hofstra from the outset and erased an eight-point deficit, closing with a 26-10 flurry over the final 6:39 to stun the Pride (0-1) in a 79-71 upset win.
Junior reserve guard Richard Washington singlehandedly outscored Hofstra over that stretch, scoring 14 of his game-high-tying 23 points to key San Jose’s 35-2 advantage off the bench.
Taking over as the team’s top-scoring option in the wake of Wright-Foreman’s departure, senior guard Eli Pemberton canceled Washington’s output with 23 points of his own and was complemented by 13 points each from senior guard Desure Buie and junior guard Jalen Ray, as well as 12 points from senior guard Tareq Coburn and a near double-double (eight points and a game-high-tying 11 rebounds) from junior transfer forward Isaac Kante (who has taken the mantle for another key departure from last season, former Hofstra big man Jacquil Taylor).
But Washington had his own help from three San Jose State starters, as senior Swedish forward Craig LeCesne had 19 points and 11 rebounds while sophomore guard Seneca Knight added 13 points and eight rebounds, and senior guard Brae Ivey chipped in with 10 points.
“We got what we deserved,” admitted last year’s CAA Coach of the Year, head coach Joe Mihalich. “We didn’t deserve to win. We weren’t tough enough. We always talk about how this game honors toughness [and] we didn’t have the toughness, we didn’t have the fight that [we] should have.”
That was evident from the start when after a Coburn basket inside and a Buie 3-pointer staked the Pride to an early 5-0 lead, the Spartans scored the next seven points to lead at the first media timeout, a spurt which sparked an extended 14-4 run to put San Jose State up by five. The remainder of the opening half remained very close, with Hofstra clinging to a slim 35-34 lead at intermission.
Starting just 3 of 18 from 3-point range, the Pride made five of its next seven shots behind this season’s slightly deeper 3-point arc, to take its biggest lead, 61-53, with 7:07 left, and to grab a 69-67 edge on a Pemberton trey with 3:32 to play.
That’s when Washington, after missing three of his first four 3-point shots, made his last three, including two in a row from the left corner. The first one put San Jose State ahead for good, 70-69, with 3:13 remaining. The next, from the same spot 1:04 later, extended the Spartans’ lead to four points. The last, with just under a minute left, was a dagger from the right wing, to make it 76-69.
Pointing to missing a couple of key box outs which helped San Jose State hold a 17-10 advantage in second-chance points, Mihalich asked rhetorically before answering his own question, “Are we paying attention to detail? It’s just a matter of deciding to do what [we’re] supposed to do and making sure it gets done.”
Although he and his teammates have been thrust into bigger roles this season after losing the two-time CAA Player of the Year Wright-Foreman (who was one of the nation’s top scorers with 27.1 points per game last season) to graduation, Pemberton insists that’s something that he and Hofstra should be able to overcome.
“Twenty-seven points [per game] leaving, of course, a lot of things gotta change,” said Pemberton, “But… that’s no excuse. Just because 27 points leave, doesn’t mean we can’t replace them. We’ve got too many good scorers, too many good shooters to not [make up for that]. Tonight, you can’t blame [missing] Justin Wright-Foreman for our loss. If you look at the rebounds, [we were] outrebounded by 14 (47-33, including 14-8 on the offensive glass). It’s the little things.”
Mihalich noted, “I think these guys welcome that challenge. We all love Justin. It would be nice to play with him for the rest of our lives, but they know he’s not here anymore. Elijah’s excited about stepping into a new role, Tareq [too], everyone [on the team] is. I truly believe they are. [Justin’s] not here anymore. He ain’t coming back. If we play the game the right way, we should be good enough to have a chance to win [the CAA again].”
Against San Jose State, playing the wrong way might’ve included getting to the free throw line a mere seven times, including just twice in the second half while settling for 5-for-17 shooting from 3 in the frame.
Yet, don’t expect Mihalich to divert much from that strategy in Hofstra’s next game, at home against Monmouth on Saturday. “It’s what we do,” he said. “We shoot the ball. We didn’t shoot it [well] tonight, but I thought we got good shots [and] good looks. Gotta make ‘em. We took turns missing wide-open 3s. I hope we get those shots on Saturday because I think we’ll make them.”
One thing Mihalich will try to change before that game is the overall approach in trying to avoid complacency.
“We’ve got to take a look in the mirror and figure out what we’ve got to do to be like the team we were last year. And that’s probably part of the problem… these guys have to remember it’s not last year anymore. You get picked first before the season — there’s nothing good about that. The people that picked [us] first, they didn’t go watch [all] ten [CAA] teams practice, they didn’t watch ten teams have an exhibition game. They just said, ‘Oh, Elijah Pemberton’s back, Tareq Coburn’s back, Desure Buie’s back, let’s put them first.’ “We wouldn’t have got picked first if they watched a lot of our practices.”
Asked if the team might’ve taken San Jose State lightly, Mihalich responded, “What did we have to be overconfident about? We didn’t beat anybody this year. People said we’re first [in the CAA]. Well, we’re not.”
Not that the Pride can’t be when it counts, in March, however. To that end, Mihalich said that losing at home to a team Hofstra was expected to beat easily might ultimately prove to be “the best thing to happen to us all year.”
It’s a long season,” Mihalich added. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t know that it’s X’s and O’s. It’s about being tough. It’s about having fight. It’s about hating to lose. It’s attitude and effort, and you can control those things. You can’t control how well you shoot. You can have bad shooting nights, but it’s all the intangibles. It’s a matter of looking in the mirror and deciding who we are, who we want to be.”
After a disappointing start, Hofstra will have the next two days off to reflect and see how it might start proving the prognosticators right.