San Jose may be a mere five-hour, intrastate drive to Los Angeles, but for the Hofstra Pride, the journey over a five-game, early-season stretch from San Jose State to UCLA was a long way to go.
Questions immediately abounded as to how good this year’s Colonial Athletic Association favorite might be after Hofstra, as an 18½-point favorite, lost its season opener at home, to San Jose State, which was picked to finish last in the Mountain West Conference this year, coming off consecutive four-win seasons.
Those concerns only grew after San Jose State later lost by 48 points at Arizona, a Pac-12 Conference rival of the UCLA Bruins, who loomed as a seemingly unbeatable road opponent for the Pride after Hofstra’s inconsistent start included a 20-point bounce-back home win over Monmouth, followed by a 15-point road loss at Bucknell, before an easy drubbing over Division II New York Tech.
More than 2,800 miles away from its extremely disappointing loss to San Jose State, Hofstra (3-2) seemed destined to struggle mightily as a 14-point underdog against the considerably bigger and more physical Bruins (4-1).
That distance in mileage is now a fitting symbol of how far the Pride’s game has traveled after senior guard Desure Buie (29 points, seven assists, three steals) and junior guard Jalen Ray (27 points) each tallied career scoring highs in leading Hofstra from a 13-point first-half deficit to a stunning 88-78 victory.
The win, Hofstra’s first in seven tries against a Pac-12 team, is one of the biggest ever for a program which has reached the NCAA tournament only four times, has yet to win an NCAA tournament game and which last went to the NCAA tournament in 2001, when the 13th-seeded Pride surprisingly battled fourth-seeded UCLA most of the way before ultimately succumbing by 13 points on a neutral floor.
This time was different, in UCLA’s famed Pauley Pavillion, with Buie and Ray complemented by senior guards Eli Pemberton (15 points) and Tareq Coburn (10 points), as Hofstra got all but two of its points from its starting five, which outscored the Bruins’ starters, 86-57.
On a night when Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (at Madison Square Garden in New York) tied coaching legend John Wooden’s record of 217 wins while leading a top-ranked team, Hofstra was undeterred playing on the renowned court bearing Wooden’s name — even after UCLA used a 19-8 run to take a game-high lead of 32-19, with 8:14 left in the opening half.
“We kept our composure there,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “We kept our poise. We knew there was a lot of game left and we knew that if we just dug down and made it a little tougher for them to score, and if we found a way to score ourselves, we’d be okay, and that proved to be true.”
Buie added, “We just tried to take good shots, defend and play together… and get to the free throw line.”
Following his point guard’s cue, Ray said, “We just feed off of each other. When [Buie] gets going, he tells me to get going and that’s how we get our team going as a whole.”
Sparked by a pair of 3-pointers from Ray, the Pride scored the next 10 points before later scoring the last five points of the half to trim the ruins’ lead to just 42-41 by halftime.
Associate head coach Mike Farrelly believed that the pressure was all on the home team at that point.
“When you play these games [as a big underdog], you have nothing to lose,” he said. “We weathered the storm. Going into halftime down one was huge for us.”
As Farrelly noted, that gave Hofstra tremendous confidence, even after UCLA went on a 17-8 run to lead, 59-51, with 13:50 remaining. The Pride immediately responded with the next eight points to tie the game, after a Pemberton layup and a pair of 3s from Ray, who made five of eight shots from behind the arc.
“That’s what we do,” Mihalich said. “We can shoot. We had a couple of games when we didn’t make some of the shots we normally make.”
After missing three of its first four 3-pointers, Hofstra finished 11-for-20 from 3-point range. Conversely, the Bruins, after a 4-for-6 start from that distance, missed 14 of their final 16 3-point attempts.
The Pride particularly weaponized that key difference in the second half, when Hofstra converted 6 of 13 treys while UCLA missed all but one of its 10 3-pointers after halftime.
That advantage from deep was set up by the Pride’s guards relentlessly attacking the paint, which also helped give Hofstra a decided edge at the free throw line, where the Pride went 24-for-30 (thanks mainly to Buie making all 13 of his foul shots) compared to the Bruins’ 14-for-18.
“We knew if we could get to the foul line, we’d be okay,” Mihalich said.
Buie not only led with his offense, but he bottled up opposing starting point guard, freshman Tyger Campbell, who took just three shots and failed to score in 28 minutes.
Trailing by two, the Pride scored six straight points, to lead, 67-63, remarkably taking the lead for good, at 64-63, on a free throw by Ray with 8:07 left.
That was 15 seconds after 6-foot-9, 250-pound sophomore forward Cody Riley fouled out after he picked up his fourth personal foul and was assessed a technical for his fifth and final foul.
“We weren’t said to see him leave,” Mihalich quipped about Riley’s departure.
With the Bruins’ big man out, Hofstra attacked the paint further to fuel a game-deciding 15-6 spurt that put the Pride up, 82-72, with 2:49 to go. UCLA got no closer than six points, with 1:33 left.
Mihalich candidly noted that the Bruins (playing under a record 11 national championship banners hanging from the rafters) might’ve been looking past the huge historical disparity between the two programs and toward their trip to Hawaii for the Maui Jim Invitational tournament next week, to compete with the likes of BYU and Kansas.
“We got them at the right time,” Mihalich admitted. “It was their fifth home game in a row and they’re thinking about Maui.”
However, Mihalich also credited his squad, saying, “I thought we really earned it. They played well, too. They made shots. I thought we just made tougher shots… [and Buie and Ray] just weren’t going to let us lose.”
After coming up big on a stage grander than what he and his teammates are used to, Ray noted, “This is a legendary building, so getting a win here is very good.”
Putting the victory in its proper perspective, Mihalich added, “It’s almost hard to put into words because it’s going to get better with time, too. We’re almost numb with excitement for doing something like this. If you love basketball, you know what a great program [UCLA] is. For us, to win this game, it’s one of the best wins in the history of Hofstra basketball.”
Later, Mihalich spoke to his team in a jubilant locker room.
“We just made history,” he declared. “To come to this place, one of the most storied places in college basketball, and to beat them on their floor, is a credit to you guys.”
While some may think Hofstra might be satisfied with pulling off one of the biggest regular-season wins in its history, the Pride always had it sights set even higher as it embarked on a three-game California trip which will conclude with games at California State Fullerton on Sunday followed by a visit to San Diego on Wednesday.
Mihalich continued addressing his team, “What did we say when we left campus? ‘This week’s going to define us. This trip’s going to define us.’ Pretty good start. We now know how hard we’ve got to play. That was an incredible win. They played well. They scored more points than they [had] scored [this season] and they couldn’t stop us.
“We’ve got to take this and use it as a springboard. We’ve got to take this and run with it, and we ain’t looking back. We didn’t come here for one win, we came here for three.”
Two more wins on the trip remain to be seen. For now, Hofstra successfully put itself on the college basketball map for at least one night, while more importantly traveling a long way from how it began the season.