HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — All in all, the Hofstra Pride is right about where head coach Joe Mihalich would like his team to be at a crucial turning point in the season.
After two disappointing losses in three games to start the year, Hofstra (9-4) has won eight of 10 contests, including four of its last five and three straight to end the non-conference portion of its schedule before starting the annual jockeying for position with five upcoming road games against familiar foes over the Pride’s first seven Colonial Athletic Association games.
Mihalich considered Hofstra’s latest victory — a 63-51 home win over the pesky Manhattan Jaspers (4-5) at the Mack Sports Complex — a good test for the CAA minefield which the Pride will now have to navigate to prove right the preseason prognosticators who picked Hofstra to win the CAA this year.
Allowing a season-low in points while being held to its second-lowest total of the season, a trio made up of the Pride’s starting backcourt — senior guards Eli Pemberton and Desure Buie (19 points apiece) — and starting sophomore forward Isaac Kante (14 points, game-high 11 rebounds) collectively outscored Manhattan, which didn’t get much offensive production outside of sophomore guard Tykei Greene (game-best 25 points, 5-for-5 from 3-point range) and senior forward Pauly Paulicap (13 points).
“They have a style about them that’s unique,” Mihalich said of the Jaspers. “They make you play their way and we beat them playing the way they play.”
Moments earlier, Mihalich said, “I’m really proud of our guys because we found a way to win. There weren’t a whole lot of shining moments offensively, but we grinded it out defensively. I thought our slides were terrific, our communication was terrific.
“No one plays harder than [Manhattan] and we were able to match their intensity and their emotion and I think we won the 50-50 battles.”
Trailing, 9-6 after less then four minutes, Hofstra took control with a 21-9 run (behind nine points from Pemberton and six from Kante), to lead, 27-18, with 4:48 left in the opening half. Greene scored the next five points, but Kante scored inside and Pemberton added five more points before junior reserve forward Stafford Trueheart (coming off a season-best 11 points in Hofstra’s prior game) scored his only points on the day, trading a 3-pointer with Greene, to send the Pride to the locker room with a 37-25 lead at halftime.
“I think we’re finding some guys coming off the bench now to help us,” Mihalich said. “Stafford Trueheart’s been good the last couple of games and [forwards] Hal Hughes (a freshman) and Kevin Schutte (a sophomore) continue to be a two-headed monster, giving Isaac a break. We’re going to need [those three] down the road.”
Using a 12-4 spurt to start the second half, Manhattan got as close as 41-37, with 13:50 remaining, but the Jaspers went cold as Buie traded places with Pemberton the rest of the way.
Manhattan didn’t score again until 6½ minutes later.
Pemberton said of the Jaspers, “We knew that they’re a very aggressive defensive team and we knew that they play a really tough zone, but I feel like this game was [won] more on the defensive end [for us].”
Meanwhile, whereas Pemberton scored 14 points and Buie five in the opening half, the backcourt mates reversed those numbers in the second half, with Buie scoring 14 of the Pride’s final 22 points to keep Manhattan in check.
A Buie 3-pointer pushed Hofstra’s lead to 45-37, with 11:56 left. After a Pemberton three-point play and a Kante layup, a smooth pull-up jumper from Buie gave the Pride the game’s biggest lead, 52-39, with 6:32 to go.
Buie later answered a Greene 3-pointer — to get Hofstra’s lead back to double digits, at 55-44 — and with the margin later down to eight, Buie scored the Pride’s final six points over the last 2:35, on a couple of jumpers and two free throws to seal the win.
Pleased with what he saw on the whole from the Pride out of conference, Mihalich looked ahead to a CAA which figures to be up for grabs among a few different teams, with Hofstra seriously in the mix as a contender.
“There’s never a day off in [the CAA],” Mihalich said. “It’s a heck of a league. We love playing in it and we can’t wait to get started.
“Our league is the best league in the country that nobody knows about… we start out with five [CAA games] out of seven on the road for the second time in three years, but we’re ready for that. We’re far from a finished product, but I think [we’re] a pretty good team.”