HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Selected as the Colonial Athletic Association preseason favorite, the Hofstra Pride had to shake off a blowout loss at home to one conference rival and consecutive two-point heartbreakers to two other league foes to slowly ascend to the top of the CAA standings.
On Thursday night, first-place Hofstra (19-7, 10-3 CAA) made a resounding pronouncement that it intends to stay there.
With senior guard Desure Buie setting the tone early, senior guard Eli Pemberton dominating throughout, and sophomore forward Isaac Kante and junior guard Jalen Ray chipping in, the Pride turned an expected tough battle for first place with the Charleston Cougars (15-11, 9-5 CAA) into an easy, wire-to-wire 76-63 victory before 2,502 at the Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex and a CBS Sports Network national television audience.
Winning its fifth straight game, the Pride moved one game ahead of Delaware (which replaced Charleston in second place) while dropping the Cougars into a two-way tie for third place as the regular season continues to wind down at the end of the month.
In a prime example of how statistics can sometimes be very misleading, Pemberton’s game-high and career-high-tying 28 points were as impactful as the 27 points from Charleston star senior guard Grant Riller were quiet.
“Elijah got a lot done on the offensive end,” Buie said. “We knew the hot hand was him.”
As his team’s lone scorer in double figures, Riller tried to bring Charleston back with 21 of the Cougars’ 33 second-half points, but he missed six of his first seven shots and was held to just six points before intermission.
Far more efficient and consistent, Pemberton had twice that many points by halftime on 5-for-7 shooting and shot the same while adding 16 more second-half points in a complete turnaround from Pemberton’s worst game of the season, a two-point effort on 1-for-8 shooting in Hofstra’s 69-67 loss at Charleston on Jan. 18.
Pemberton said the difference was, “Just playing the game the right way, just keeping the game simple. The coaches were talking about that getting prepared for Charleston. I feel like down there (at Charleston), I kind of hesitated and it was just uncharacteristic.”
His very different play in that earlier meeting was motivating in the rematch, but not as much as the thought of holding onto the top spot in the conference. “[The first game with Charleston] definitely did something [to motivate me], but I just wanted to go out there and keep first place,” Pemberton said. “That was the main thing tonight.”
Attacking aggressively, Pemberton scored early on drives down each side of the lane and on a nice cut to the hoop off of a crisp pass from Ray. But, it was Buie who made sure Mihalich wouldn’t have to worry about another slow start on Hofstra’s floor.
“Too many times at home this year, we had to call a timeout two or three minutes into the game because we were down [something like] 13-4, or 9-0, or 7-0,” Mihalich noted. “We played 40 minutes tonight. It was good to have a lead wire-to-wire.”
This time, Buie made sure Mihalich could hold onto his timeouts early, getting a steal and a breakaway layup for the game’s first points before assisting on a Kante basket and making a 3-pointer to stake the Pride to a 7-0 lead after less than two minutes.
“I was just focused, I was just so locked in,” said Buie, who scored all 13 of his points in the first half. “I just wanted to get a win today and I knew we had to have a great start, so I just tried to bring that energy and it came out that way.”
Consecutive 3-pointers from Buie and Pemberton pushed an eight-point lead to as much as 39-25 in the first half before Hofstra settled for a 41-30 advantage at halftime.
Starting the second half on a personal 7-2 run from Riller, Charleston closed to within 43-37, but a 24-14 spurt behind 12 points from Pemberton, five from Kante (11 points, game-high 11 rebounds to help the Pride to a 34-22 rebounding edge) and four from Ray (14 points) gave Hofstra a commanding 67-51 lead with 5:24 remaining. Pemberton scored the final six points during the run on a 3-pointer and a tough drive for a three-point play.
The Pride’s lead never got lower than the final margin thereafter and grew to as much as 19 points twice in the final 4:07.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Mihalich said later. “We really answered the bell. The stage was set — a national TV game, two teams playing for first place, a team that beat us at the buzzer at their place, two great teams going toe to toe, and we were fortunate enough to make some better plays than them throughout the course of the game, and [to] get just a high-level performance from Elijah and the always high-level performance from Desure.”
As well as he played offensively, Pemberton also led Hofstra with half of the Pride’s eight steals (the second straight game in which Pemberton had four thefts).
“I just thought, in general, our defense was really good,” Mihalich said. “They’re such a unit, they play in unison. They just really play off of each other and they reach shooters, they’re just good at that. It’s fun to watch them.
“We made enough plays when we had to. We pushed the lead out enough… and then we dug in defensively.”
Pemberton added, “I think that we’ve got a lot of veteran guys on our team and a lot of smart guys, defensively. We kind of changed our zone [defense] this year, from last year, and our coaches do such a great job.
“[We’re] moving together, different slides, it kind of helped us be more in sync with each other, guys making sure they know who they’re guarding, I think that’s the big key… we’re all in sync. Once the ball moves, we move with the ball.”
That’s just one example of the way Hofstra — which is seeking consecutive CAA regular-season titles for the first time since joining the conference 18 years ago — has been able to improve its play enough to not only move up to first place in the CAA, but to become the team to beat, backing up the preseason consensus.
“When we play the game the right way and we respect every possession, and take it personal with what we’re doing out there, then we’re at our best,” Mihalich said.
Pemberton sees the more recent difference as resulting from a better focus. “We had flurries of some games we’d lose, just not being mentally there and I think we got past that point, finally,” he said. “[Now], it’s definitely a different feel from the beginning of the season, how locked in guys are.”
While Mihalich was happy with the victory and the position his team is in, he’s taking nothing for granted with ninth-place North Carolina-Wilmington (which the Pride struggled to beat on the road by just two points on Jan. 16) visiting Hofstra to conclude the Pride’s three-game homestand on Saturday as Mihalich will seek his 400th career win.
“A great win,” he said. “A lot more work to do, but if you told me at the beginning of the season, that on February 13th, we’d have a one-game lead for first place, I’m sure we’d have taken that.
“[UNCW plays] as hard as any team we’ve played all year. They don’t care what their record is, they just play the game as hard as they can. I think they’ve come up with three or four different defenses I [had] never seen in my life, so we’re expecting the kitchen sink to be thrown at us and we’ll see if we can be ready for them.”
Having closed January with a pair of wins, and after starting February with three more victories, Pemberton and his teammates are well aware of what’s in front of them with five regular season games left through Feb. 29 before the CAA tournament starts next month in what will very likely be a one-bid conference in terms of NCAA tournament berths.
“February’s a big month,” Pemberton said. “We always emphasize, we’ve got to win February if we want to be good in March. So, guys are locked in.
“We can’t be comfortable at all. We’ve got to make sure that we buckle down… staying in first place is definitely a priority and I think that motivates us.”