HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — In the end, the Northeastern Huskies’ tendency for blowing 16-point leads proved greater than the Hofstra Pride’s inclination for having slow starts at home.
After allowing Northeastern to score the first eight points and 13 of the first 14 en route to a 20-4 deficit, Hofstra was sparked by a raucous Homecoming Day crowd, senior guard Desure Buie, junior guard Jalen Ray and its bench to rally for a 75-71 Colonial Athletic Association win at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
Overcoming a game-high 32 points from the nations’s fifth-leading scorer, redshirt senior guard Jordan Roland, the conference preseason favorite Pride (18-7, 9-3 CAA) won its fourth-straight game and moved into first place in the CAA (a half-game ahead of Charleston, which was upset by Elon at home on Saturday) while handing the defending league champion Huskies (11-13, 5-7 CAA) their fourth straight defeat and fifth loss in six games.
Northeastern coughed up a 16-point lead for the third time in that stretch. The prior two times were roughly midway through the second half, before the Huskies lost. This time, the Pride — which blew its own 16-point lead, but won by two, at Northeastern on Jan. 9 — had a lot more time to recover.
Buie scored 19 of 22 points in the second half and Ray had 17 of his 22 points during the same frame. Each guard drew nine fouls in the game to help Hofstra attempt 15 more free throws (22-7) and make 14 more (19-5) than Northeastern in the second half. Ray went 10-for-12 at the line after halftime after going just 1-for-2 from there in the opening half.
Playing all 12 of his minutes in the first half, reserve sophomore forward Kevin Schutte grabbed eight rebounds, including a game-high five on the offensive glass, as the Pride used a 24-14 run to pull within 34-28. The Huskies responded with the next six points, but Buie — who missed his first six shots (including four from 3-point range) — led Hofstra back by making six of his last eight field goal attempts (while making three of his last four shots from behind the arc).
That started just before halftime with a ball that was poked away in the lane, before Buie recovered to make his first shot, a floater that beat the first-half buzzer, to pull the Pride to within 40-30.
I was like, ‘Finally,’ in my head,” Buie recalled. “The ball bounces differently sometimes. I struggled in the first half, but I didn’t try to let that carry over to the second half. I knew my teammates needed me to make plays and that’s what I tried to do in the second half.”
Hofstra, which began the day tied for second in the nation with nine road wins and 6-1 on the road in CAA play, but was only 2-2 at home in conference play, continued a recurring issue with struggling early on its home floor, something that has perplexed head coach Joe Mihalich.
“We don’t know,” he said. “We just can’t figure it out. Even when we start out good offensively, we’re still bad defensively. I have no idea. I wish I could figure it out.”
At a loss to correct that problem with Hofstra closing the regular season with four more home games over its final six contests before the CAA tournament in March, Mihalich joked, “We’re gonna pull the Ouija board out and see if that helps give us some answers.”
Current Pride assistant coach and former NBA first-round pick and ex-Hofstra star Craig “Speedy” Claxton, whose 2000 NCAA tournament team was honored during the game, offered an explanation.
“We’ve had some poor starts and we can’t have that, Claxton said. “We can’t keep coming back from these deficits… I think these guys get too comfortable. They’re too familiar with their surroundings. They’ve got their family and friends here, so they’re very passive and cool, and you can’t be cool playing this game. You’re at home, you tend to relax a little bit, you’re like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna win, we’re at home.’ But, it’s not like that.”
Mihalich eventually came up with a plausibility for the big early hole his team dug.
Knowing that five of Northeastern’s conference losses have come by one possession and its two other CAA defeats by two possessions, Mihalich was wary of playing the talented but desperate and thus far, underachieving Huskies.
“[We felt], they’re gonna be angry, they’re gonna be inspired, they’re gonna have a chip on their shoulder, their record is misleading, all those things are true,” he said. “[We warned our team of that, but] the problem is that this time of year, it starts to go in one ear and out the other, and maybe that was the reason for the bad start.”
Eventually, things clicked for Mihalich’s team, with Buie and Ray leading the way offensively.
Down 14 points a little over three minutes into the second half, the Pride took its first lead — 53-52, on a Ray 3-pointer with 9:01 left — after a 21-6 run fueled by 10 points from Ray and seven from Buie.
“A lot of people in the building probably thought a lot of times in the first half [that] it just wasn’t our day,” Mihalich said. “We were listless, they got the big lead, they were making shots, we were missing shots, it didn’t seem good. And yet, that’s the resolve of this team. When you’ve got people like Desure Buie and Jalen Ray, if there’s a better backcourt in the country, I still wouldn’t trade them. They just took over the second half.”
Toward the end of the game-turning spurt, reserve junior forward Stafford Trueheart (seven points, seven rebounds, two blocks, one steal) sparked the Pride with a steal and a breakaway dunk, which brought Hofstra to within 50-48, with 11:22 left.
Worth two points on the scoreboard, the play’s value was much greater in other ways.
“That was huge,” Buie said. “That was a gamechanger. I was very happy for him. You probably saw me in the back, jumping with him. That was a big play, it was so huge for us. That really got the crowd into it, and that brought us into it more, and we really built off of that. Staff and Kevin sparked us so much… we’ve got a really good team. We’ve got a lot of great players on our team that can handle those situations. We stayed poised.”
Sensing a way he could involve Hofstra’s best home crowd of the season (of 3,835) to help the Pride, Truehart said, “I knew, just watching, how the game was going, I knew we needed a spark. Whatever way I could provide that, I tried to do [that]. Once I saw that lane, I just knew I had to dunk it to get the crowd back in it.”
Truehart added, “It was quiet the first 8-10 minutes. Once we get [the crowd] into it, it was going to help the team and we were just going to feed off of it.”
Mihalich added, “What a great crowd. It was just terrific. A big part of the win today was our crowd. They were into the game. They helped us a great deal… they’re more than welcome to come back for the rest of these home games we have. The crowd was just awesome.”
Although he only played seven players, Mihalich was very pleased with the contributions of his two bench players.
“I’ve been saying all year long, we need something off the bench and our bench won the game,” he said.
Kevin Schutte had eight rebounds and made a big bucket when we needed [one], because we were struggling, and Stafford was incredible — seven points, seven rebounds, [a steal], dunks, blocked shots.”
Jesting after the game, Mihalich told Truehart, “You’re welcome to do that every game, by the way.”
Telling reporters, Mihalich said of Trueheart, “If we can get that out of [him], this is going to be a team that’s going to create some problems for some people.”
Hofstra did that for Northeastern, extending its second-half run to 36-14, to lead, 68-60, on a layup by Buie with 2:14 remaining.
Hanging in until the final seconds, the Huskies went on an 8-1 run to close within 69-68, on a double-clutch, left-handed, well-defended, off-balance, desperation left-wing 3-pointer from the right-handed Roland with 9.9 seconds to play.
However, Buie made two free throws 1.4 seconds later before Hofstra fouled to deny another 3-point attempt.
Leading 73-70 after two free throws by Ray with three seconds left, the Pride fouled again. After one good free throw to get within two, the Huskies committed a lane violation that sealed their fate. Northeastern was forced to foul Ray, who closed the scoring on two more free throws with 1.6 seconds left.
“Their execution at the end of the game was great,” Mihalich said of his players. “All the credit goes to them… to a T, they were great. I thought our late-game execution was really good.”
Before that, the Pride’s defense was even better, limiting the Huskies to just 20 points over the first 18:51 of the second half.
“Our defense was good,” Mihalich said. “I don’t know what happened, maybe the light went on. Sometimes, when you’re not scoring — the great teams do it — it’s hard to still be good defensively. I think the fact that we were struggling offensively [early], we let it affect our defense [in the first half].”
Believing the seventh-place Huskies are still as dangerous as any team to repeat as CAA tournament champions in March, Mihalich said, “We respect that team… that’s a good team. That team could win the league.”
Claxton added, “They’ve had a tough stretch. They lost some close games, including this one, but they’re right there. I know nobody in the league is taking them for granted. I know we didn’t. We still know how good they are. If they made a [few] more shots [in some games], they’re in first place.”
Such is the ultra-competitive CAA, in which the top five teams separated by only 1½ games and even the seventh-place team is still capable of winning a second straight conference tournament with either five or six regular season games left for each team in the league.
However, as unpredictable and wide open as the CAA is, being back in first place and controlling its own destiny with one-third of the schedule left is a good place for Hofstra to be.