HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The 3-pointers started early and kept coming. By halftime, the Hofstra Pride were already two short of its season-high and had knocked down more treys than the Jame-seas Madison Dukes had total made field goals.
By the end, Hofstra had buried James Madison with a school-record 20 3s on 36 attempts, falling only one made 3-pointer shy of a Colonial Athletic Association record.
In the CAA regular-season finale for both teams, the last-place Dukes (9-20, 2-16 CAA) were facing the first-place Pride (23-8, 14-4 CAA) on the wrong day, one game after Hofstra saw its eight-game winning streak snapped in a home loss to Towson and nearly one full year after James Madison spoiled Hofstra’s last Senior Day in a surprising double-overtime upset.
This time, the level of focus that will be needed for the Pride to achieve its ultimate goal of winning the CAA tournament in March was on display in abundance as Hofstra led by 34 points en route to a Senior Day 97-81 rout in front of 3,843 fans at the Mack Sport Complex to capture consecutive outright CAA regular-season titles for the first time in school history on Saturday.
“We had that edge,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “We were on a mission. We were disappointed that we didn’t do that a game earlier. These guys were locked and ready to go.”
Especially senior guard Eli Pemberton, who scored the Pride’s first nine points to key a 14-3 run that staked Hofstra to a 14-6 lead.
Ahead, 27-21, the Pride closed the half on a 34-13 spurt to lead, 61-33.
By then, Hofstra was 13-for-21 from 3-point range while James Madison was 12-for-28 overall. The Pride not only had a season-high in first-half points, but by halftime, Pemberton — who finished with a career-best and game-high 35 points (on 11-of-17 shooting, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range, while making eight of nine free throw attempts — was already within four points of his previous career-high of 28 points, which he had posted twice earlier this season.
Pemberton noted, “We just came off a loss, so I was happy it was Senior Day, but I’m thinking, ‘Championship first.’ We didn’t forget anything from last year and we were fresh off a loss. We had two things in mind — payback and championship.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Hofstra’s leading scorer and CAA Player of the Year candidate Desure Buie, who scored 26 points and recorded nine assists for a second straight game, while going 7-for-11 from behind the arc.
“We didn’t forget that (Senior Day loss to JMU a year ago),” Buie said. “This year, we [had] just lost a game, so we were trying to come back and be great today.”
Complementing Pemberton and Buie were junior guards Jalen Ray (12 points, 3-for-5 from 3-point range) and Tareq Coburn (14 points, 4-for-9 from 3).
Buie tied Hofstra’s prior school record with the Pride’s 17th 3-pointer (in 25 attempts), to move the lead to 80-53 before Pemberton and Buie combined to increase Hofstra’s advantage to 87-53, with 12:29 left, on a seven-point trip.
On that sequence, Pemberton tied his previous career scoring high on a tough, driving layup as he drew a flagrant foul. Pemberton then made two free throws for the first 30-point game of his career before Buie drained a then-school record 18th 3-pointer for the Pride.
The lead remained at least 25 points until just under five minutes remained before the Dukes made a late push to merely make the final outcome a bit more respectable.
Including the Hofstra’s shared CAA regular-season title in the 2015-16 season, the Pride has three regular-season championships in five years and became the first team to win back-to-back outright CAA regular-season titles since Virginia Commonwealth ended as the lone team atop the CAA standings for a third straight season 11 years ago.
Mihalich mentioned, “It’s only six teams that have ever done it (won consecutive CAA regular-season titles) in the history of the league (since the conference began in 1982-83). It’s quite an accomplishment. Now, it’s not the ultimate — there’s another prize out there that we’re trying to get (a CAA tournament title), but… we’re proud of it.
“There will come a time when we really think about it, but not now. We’re already thinking about that first [CAA tournament] game in Washington, D.C (on March 8 against either eighth-seeded Drexel or ninth-seeded North Carolina Wilmington).”
Before the game, Pemberton, Buie and seldom-used but beloved senior guard Connor Klementowicz (who drew a big cheer when he made a great save and recorded on offensive rebound which led to a Pemberton 3-pointer on Hofstra’s first possession) were honored in a pregame ceremony, one that got to Pemberton.
“It didn’t hit me until I got up there that this was my last game here and the tears just started falling,” Pemberton recounted. “I was fine [earlier] today and that just happened. I’m just grateful that I’m here. I chose the right school after I got out of high school. [My teammates] make me better every day.”
The Middletown, CT native continued, “Long Island made a man out of me early. I learned so much here. The people that I’ve met, the personalities I’ve met that made me who I am and the good people around me. They’re going to keep it honest with you, too. I learned that. The fans are going to keep it real honest and that’s what we needed as a team. Long Island’s amazing. I love ‘em.”
Buie, who was more composed during the ceremony, said, “Coming here as a kid and leaving five years later [as] a man, I love this place.”
Now in his fifth year, as a 23-year-old father, Buie added, “I love my coaches, I love my teammates. [They] mean everything to me… the community, they love us. I try to give them that special feeling back. I love Hofstra, I’ll always love it.”
Buie had to finally hold back the tears at that point. A few moments later, while listening to Pemberton speak, Buie admitted, “I’ve been very emotional all day today. Very.”
Mihalich likewise became emotional, wanting to say more, but stopping short after saying, “We’re more than a team. It’s not just about the basketball, it’s not just about the winning.”
Not that the Pride isn’t enjoying that, however. Particularly on Senior Day.
“It was a great feeling,” Pemberton said. “It all stems from my teammates, especially Buie. Once I got off to a hot start, he just told me to be that man today and it was the same thing with him in the second half (when Buie scored 16 points). I’m happy it happened (Pemberton’s first 30-point game) on this day with all the fans that came out, all our families that came out today, just a special day.
“It feels good. It’ll feel better in [eleven] days if we get one more [CAA championship in the conference tournament in Washington, D.C.], but it is a great feeling to end [the regular season] like this, on a great note, with guys like this. They’re great basketball players, but even better people, and I really mean that. You don’t [often] meet people like this. Desure helped me with my maturity and Connor’s like one of my best friends. It’s amazing when you come in with somebody and (years later) you’re walking out with them. It’s an emotional day, but I’m grateful.”
Fittingly, after the Senior Day win was led by Pemberton and Buie, Klementowicz had the ball last to dribble out the clock.
Winning the regular-season title means Hofstra has fulfilled the prophecy of being picked as the consensus conference preseason.
“It’s where I hoped we’d be,” Mihalich said. “It was all based on what we did last year and the fact that we had some returning guys, [including] Desure and Elijah… but I knew we could be one of the best teams.”
That’s fine for now and worth celebrating. But the championship the Pride really wants is the one that eluded them by one game in the CAA title game in Charleston, SC last season,
After beating James Madison, Mihalich said, “We talked about a lot of good things, but also that feeling we had in the hallways down in Charleston after we lost that championship game.”
Mihalich is under no illusion that despite being the top seed for a second straight year, nothing will be given and Hofstra will have to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament in 19 years if it happens, even from the Pride’s first game in the CAA quarterfinals.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be three tough games. We beat Wilmington by two down there… and it’s hard to beat a team three times.”
However, the experience of last year may help.
“We’re going to enjoy this for a couple days, we’re going to prepare like crazy,” Mihalich said. “These guys have been there. I think that helps.”
An even bigger benefit is the drive Mihalich’s team has.
“These guys hate to lose,” Mihalich said. “Everybody loves to win, but only true winners hate to lose.”
Although the losses have been few this season, they were enough to teach the Pride how to refocus when needed.
“I think we learned,” Buie said. “Now it’s three games, three days. It’s going to take a lot of focus, taking care of our bodies and staying together. Even when times get rough, we’ve been there. We’ve been to the championship [game] last year, of course, so we know what it’s like to get there. Every single game is a battle, no matter who you’re playing. Just because you beat somebody [before, it doesn’t matter]. It’s 0-0, it’s a new series, so we’ve got to take every game one step at a time.”
Pemberton added, “The thing about this league is anybody can beat anybody and we’ve seen that so far. Every game that we go into, we’ve got to expect everybody’s ‘A’ game, especially as a number 1 seed. We like that feeling of having a target on our backs and it’s going to make us play even harder. I [know] my brothers know that we have to play a hundred percent this tournament and hopefully, we’ll get that job done.”