HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The more obvious accomplishments were plentiful and noteworthy, but there was another one which mattered most to the Hofstra Pride.
On a day when head coach Joe Mihalich reached his 400th career win and clinched his fourth 20-win season during his seventh year at Hofstra, while sophomore transfer forward Isaac Kante recorded career-highs in points and rebounds, and senior guard Eli Pemberton moved further up the top-10 on Hofstra’s scoring list, the Pride was happiest that it didn’t take the ninth-place North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks for granted and instead coasted to its sixth straight win to increase its hold on first place (1½ games ahead of William & Mary) in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Led by career-highs of 23 points and 14 rebounds from Kante, with Pemberton matching Kante’s point total, Hofstra (20-7, 11-3 CAA) built a 28-point lead in a 78-64 win over UNCW (8-20, 3-12 CAA) at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
“I’m just really proud of the guys for how they handled the day,” said the 63-year-old Mihalich, who is 135-91 at Hofstra after going 265-203 in 15 years at Niagara. “Everybody else is going to look at the records and say, ‘Well, [the Seahawks] only [have] three league wins and they’re in ninth place, the coach got fired halfway through [the season], it’s a home game, all you’ve got to do is show up and win. [UNCW is] not any good.’ And, our guys weren’t that way. They treated the game the right way.
“Their focus (in practice) yesterday was elite and when you’ve got talent like we have, and then their focus is like that, and their hunger and their desire to be great is like that, it’s a pleasure to be their coach. I’m happy for these guys, but more for how they approached the game than even what they did during the game.”
That part had to please Mihalich as well, though.
Following a wire-to-wire home win over Charleston on Thursday night, Hofstra nearly did the same again, allowing UNCW to score the first basket before taking the lead for good, 3-2, on a 3-pointer by junior guard Tareq Coburn 49 seconds into the game.
That shot started a 13-4 Pride run before the first media timeout.
After Seahawks’ forward Jake Boggs hit a 3-pointer to draw UNCW within 15-10, with 14;47 left in the opening half, nearly eight minutes passed before Hofstra allowed another field goal, with 6:59 to go in the half. By that time, it was 31-18, after the Pride had scored 14 consecutive points.
Crediting his assistant coaches for Hofstra’s stifling defense, Mihalich said. “Those guys are unbelievable. They know what the other team is going to do before they’re doing it and we take turns with the scouts. One night it’s Mike Farrelly, one night it’s Speedy Claxton, then it’s Colin Curtin. Today, it happened to be Colin… [UNCW] threw one pass and he was [calling out how to react to UNCW’s play].
“It starts with that [and then] it’s a ‘want to.’ [The players] want to play defense. They really do. They’re not just waiting to get the ball back and go score. They take pleasure in blowing up the other team’s actions and guarding guys.”
Up 36-23, Hofstra closed the half on a 12-4 spurt to take a commanding 48-27 lead by halftime.
Grabbing an offensive rebound with 11:12 left in the game, Kante tied his prior career-high for total rebounds (12). Four seconds later, Kante drew a foul and sank two free throws to match his previous scoring career-high (19 points) and push the Pride’s lead to 65-38.
Kante, who went 11-for-16 at the free throw line, drew 13 fouls, matching the fouls committed by Hofstra and accounting for half of the fouls called on UNCW.
“I just tried to be strong inside,” said Kante, who despite scoring 12 points and getting eight rebounds in Hofstra’s 63-61 win at UNCW on Jan. 16, attempted only three free throws. “That’s what Coach [Mihalich] likes to preach to me, [to] just be a beast in there. I just knew those two centers on their team couldn’t guard me. They played hard, and they got me last time at their place, so I just tried to get at them at home.”
Hofstra led by as many as 28 points before Pemberton scored on a driving layup to make it 70-49, with 7:45 left, to give the Pride’s second-leading scorer this season 19 points, moving him into ninth place on the all-time school scoring list (ahead of David Taylor’s 1,818 career points). Pemberton finished the game with 1,823 career points.
That achievement captured Mihalich’s attention more than his own career milestone.
“We’re lucky enough to be part of a team,” Mihalich said. “You don’t want to personalize things… it’s a team game, so things like [a 400th win] happen. Way more importantly, Elijah became the ninth all-time leading scorer in Hofstra basketball. It’s an incredible thing.”
While he’s too humble to accept personal credit for it, Mihalich has already matched the number of 20-win seasons at Hofstra — in less than half the years — as he had at Niagara.
“That’s the number,” he said. “The magic number in college basketball is getting 20 wins and we’re lucky enough to do it again this year, but we’ve got to stay hungry and humble, and we’re going to do that.
“Over the last six years, we’re averaging 21 wins a season. That’s something to be proud of, but it’s what Hofstra deserves. I’m so happy for all of Hofstra. They deserve a winner.”
Asked if he keeps memorabilia — such as commemorative basketballs — from earlier significant wins, Mihalich chose to speak of larger team goals with a similar mentality that he shares with his players.
“I’ve probably got a couple of them somewhere,” he said. “There’s one of them in my office. The other ones, I think they’re in the basement. I’m proud of it, but I’m just more tickled to death to be with these guys and to know that this team can win a [conference tournament] championship if we play well. That would mean way more than any personal accomplishment. I’m sure Elijah would rather go to the NCAA tournament than pass [anyone on the scoring list]. I know Isaac would rather go to the NCAA tournament than average 23 and 14 a game. That’s the dream. That’s why we do what we do. Climbing up that ladder and cutting down those nets (as Mihalich did twice with Niagara), there’s nothing like it.
“Elijah didn’t come out today and say, ‘I’m not worried about winning, I just want to get my 19 points so I could be ninth [on Hofstra’s scoring list].’ He didn’t do that and I would never do that. There’ll come a time when [I] think about [winning 400 games] and talk about it, but it’s certainly not now.”
Still, Mihalich’s players were delighted to help him to his historic mark.
“Hats off to Coach,” the Pride’s leader in points, assists and steals this season, senior point guard Desure Buie said. “Four hundred wins, that’s tough. I’m happy for him. We work so hard, so he deserves it.”
Earlier, Pemberton, Kante and Mihalich finished each other’s sentences speaking about the strong bond Mihalich and his assistants have developed with their players.
“The culture that we built here over the past few years, it’s a brotherhood from the last player on the bench to the coaching staff,” Pemberton said. “I think we’re all comfortable with each other. It’s fun to win for a coach like this and it’s fun to play for him when he lets you play your game. I don’t know what to say, just, ‘Congratulations.’”
Kante interrupted, “He believes in you,” to which Pemberton responded, “Yeah,” with a smile.
“He tells you he loves you, it’s fun,” Kante continued. “We love you too, Coach.”
Mihalich then jumped in, “I appreciate that. It’s from the heart. We just got some t-shirts that say, “MORE THAN A TEAM.’ As corny as that may seem, there’s a brotherhood in [our locker room]. There’s a love for each other. We have our tough times.”
Slapping Kante on his leg, Mihalich added, “I’ve gotten on this guy. I’ve questioned his manhood, insulted him, but it’s because you love the guys so much. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be coaching guys like this. I just pinch myself. I’m so lucky to be with them.”
Reflecting on the reality of playing his final home game on Feb. 29, Pemberton said, “I’m about to head out… to finish in first place with my brothers, I just want to give them everything I’ve got for this final stretch.”
Mihalich interjected, telling Pemberton, “‘It seems like you’re really having fun, too’” before telling reporters, “A couple weeks ago I said to him, ‘You’re already one of our all-time greats. Just have fun.’”
Turning back to Pemberton, Mihalich added, “’I think you’re really having fun. I’m having fun watching you.’”
Hofstra fans have the same feeling watching their team poised to repeat as CAA regular-season champions, with greater sights set on — more than any of the personal honors Mihalich and his team are racking up — getting the school back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years.