Pemberton, Defense Carry Top-Seeded Hofstra to CAA Semis

2020 CAA Tournament: Hofstra the Only Higher Seed to Avoid a Quarterfinal Upset

On a surprising day when second-seeded William & Mary, third-seeded Towson and fourth-seeded Charleston were all upset, top-seeded Hofstra advanced to the CAA semifinals, needing to defeat no higher than a five seed to win the CAA tournament.

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Pemberton, Defense Carry Top-Seeded Hofstra to CAA Semis

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If there’s one thing that could take the Hofstra Pride down in this year’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament, it might be Hofstra’s shooting. But if the top-seeded Pride go on to win its first CAA men’s basketball tournament title, it’ll be because of its starters leading the way and picking each other up while its team defense stops opposing offenses cold.

Shaking off a slow start with the former, Hofstra (24-8) excelled with the latter to roll past the eighth-seeded Drexel Dragons (14-19) with a dominant second half, 61-43, in a CAA quarterfinal win at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Sunday.

Sensing that his team needed a catalyst, senior guard Eli Pemberton started the second half with the type of aggression and determination off of which his teammates fed at each end of the floor.

Scoring 15 of his game-high 19 points after intermission, Pemberton (who also had a team-high 12 rebounds) tallied the first seven points of the second half to push Hofstra’s precarious 25-22 halftime lead to 10 just 2:16 after the break.

Pemberton later added consecutive buckets to give the Pride a 39-25 lead with 14:11 remaining. Drexel never got closer than 12 thereafter and trailed by as many as 20 while Hofstra’s stifling defense — which set season-lows for points allowed, opponents’ overall shooting (32.1 percent) and opponents’ 3-point shooting (9.1 percent) — kicked into high gear.

“Once we got that energy going, I [saw] the guys [have] that little bit of uplift,” Pemberton noted. “I think that’s what sparked us in the second half. We just had the butterflies in that first half and I’m thankful that I was the spark that got the team going… and I think that was definitely a big [thing] for us.

“The second half, I didn’t have to do too much, just keep the game simple and just attack downhill.”

Before that, Hofstra (following a first-round bye) needed to overcome some early nervousness and ignore the pressure of playing in a new venue as the tournament favorite against Drexel, which was coming off of a win over ninth-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington on the same floor about 17 hours earlier.

“It was a typical first game,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “You finish first (in the league standings) and you have to play a team that’s [already] played a game [in the tournament]. I know they’re tired, but they got the jitters out. We had the jitters in the first half. It’s going to happen… you’ve got to work through some things. [Drexel] did that the night before and credit to them for the way they played in the first half, but our guys had great poise and great composure, two qualities that I think championship teams have. We’ve had it all year long.”

After opening the game with the first five points, the Pride allowed the next 11 while its two leading scorers this season — senior point guard Desure Buie and Pemberton — attempted all of their team’s shots until junior guard Jalen Ray ended the Dragons’ early run with a fast-break layup 9:04 into the game.

Hofstra later trailed 16-11, but closed the half on a 14-6 run with Ray (team-high nine first-half points on 4-for-6 shooting) helping to hold the fort while his teammates shot only 31.8 percent (7-for-22) before halftime.

Proving yet again this season that the Pride might not have to rely much on its thin bench to win the CAA tournament, a starting quartet of Pemberton, Buie (14 points, game-best eight assists), Ray (14 points) and sophomore forward Isaac Kante (13 points) accounted for all but one of Hofstra’s points.

However, it was the Pride’s 2-3 zone defense — which limited the Dragons to 18-for-56 shooting, including 2-for-22 from behind the arc, while holding Drexel’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Camren Wynter (hailing from Hofstra’s campus site of Hempstead, N.Y.) scoreless on eight shots — that was the biggest factor in advancing Hofstra.  

“They work so well together,” Mihalich said of whichever five he plays together (which is normally his starters). “Five guys are always moving when something happens. They play off of each other, they read each other. A pass goes here, a ball goes there, five guys are moving to the right spot. They’ve become so good at it, it’s a great credit to them because if it weren’t for our defense today, we wouldn’t be so happy right now.”

On stopping Wynter, Mihalich added, “The goal for any player you play against is to not let him be comfortable… it wasn’t like we said, ‘Hey, let’s hold this guy scoreless.’ Our guys did [well]. He’s such a good player.”

Buie added, “We know he’s (Wynter) a great point guard. We just tried to throw him off a little bit. We threw different stuff at him today and it worked in our favor.”

Although he praised Hofstra’s defense, Drexel head coach Zach Spiker also felt the Dragons missed some opportunities they should have taken advantage of in the opening half.

“Give credit to Hofstra,” Spiker said. “They were able to have a little more gas in the tank than we did in the second half. When it was 25-22 at the break, we didn’t play perfectly, but we felt pretty good.

“They’re a well-coached team. They’re Syracuse-esque with their zone and it can be a challenge to go against them. If you miss a couple [of shots], it kind of plants a little seed and [the pressure] gets a little bigger as the game [goes on].”

While that was the case in the second half (when Drexel shot 1-for-12 from 3-point range), Spiker was disappointed his team failed to make more 3s before halftime.

Spiker said, “The second half, I thought they were a little bit more contested, but I thought the quality of those 10 (first-half 3-point attempts), I bet nine of them were [ones] that [were] the type of shot we want and the right guys taking them. We just missed them.”

Nonetheless, Hofstra moved to 15-1 (9-1 CAA) this season when allowing fewer than 70 points. The Pride is 9-7 (6-3 CAA) when surrendering at least that amount.

One more victory from reaching the CAA finals for a second straight year, Hofstra (which won a school-record 27 games last season) also set a new program record with its 51st win spanning two seasons, breaking the record of 50 wins which the then-Flying Dutchmen amassed over 1999-2000 and 2000-01, the last two years Hofstra reached the NCAA tournament just before joining the CAA the following season.

That’s the accomplishment this year’s Hofstra team wants to duplicate most as it prepares to play in the CAA semifinals at 6 pm ET on Monday. After shutting down Drexel, the Pride is one step closer to achieving that.

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Riller’s Career Ends as Delaware Chews Up Charleston

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Charleston Cougars senior guard Grant Riller wasn’t ready for his career to end, but the Delaware Blue Hens had other plans in their Colonial Athletic Association quarterfinal matchup at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Sunday.

One of the greatest players in Charleston history, Riller did all he could to try to keep his legacy and fourth-seeded Charleston’s season going, scoring 19 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. But Riller was neutralized by 25 points from junior guard Nate Darling as the fifth-seeded Blue Hens (22-10) held off the Cougars (17-14) to advance to Monday’s semifinals against top-seeded Hofstra, with a 79-67 win.

While Darling had a trio complementing him — redshirt junior forward Dylan Painter (14 points), redshirt sophomore forward Justin Mutts (12 points, game-high 11 rebounds) and junior guard Ryan Allen (12 points) — Riller merely received significant scoring help from a duo, junior guard Brevin Galloway (14 points) and sophomore guard Zep Jasper (13 points).

Delaware also overcame a poor start to lead, 32-27, at halftime, after spotting Charleston the game’s first eight points.

A Mutts layup moved the Blue Hens’ advantage to 43-32 before a Riller 3-pointer brought the Cougars to within 47-43 with 12:18 remaining. A Riller layup with 6:05 left kept Charleston within striking distance at 62-56, but Delaware put the mild upset away with a 12-4 run, to go up, 74-60.

The Blue Hens’ win, coupled with Hofstra’s victory over eighth-seeded Drexel on Sunday sets up an exact rematch on Monday of last year’s CAA semifinals, when fifth-seeded Delaware lost in overtime to top-seeded Hofstra.

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William & Mary’s NCAA Tourney Dream Derailed Again in Elon Shocker

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Perhaps sometime, the William & Mary Tribe will finally remove itself from the dubious, ever-shrinking list of what is now four original Division I teams which have never made the NCAA tournament.

But it won’t be this year, even with some promising ingredients which gave the school’s fans some hope.

Despite coming to the nation’s capital with Nathan Knight (this season’s Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year and CAA Defensive Player of the year) Dane Fischer (this year’s CAA Coach of the Year, as a rookie head coach) and being a two seed backed by the CAA tournament’s most boisterous crowd from nearby Williamsburg, VA, the Tribe’s dreams of finally going dancing ended far earlier than expected in a stunning 68-63 quarterfinal loss to the seventh-seeded Elon Phoenix at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Sunday.

One night after surprisingly falling behind as a favorite to 10th-seeded James Madison, 12-0, and leading for only the final three seconds in a two-point win, it appeared that the reverse might happen to Elon (13-20), which made four of its first six shots (including 3-for-5 from 3-point range) to lead, 13-2, and maintained an advantage before William & Mary (21-11) stormed back and nearly won at the end like the Phoenix did one night earlier.

After settling for a 40-31 halftime lead and increasing that to as much as 48-34 early in the second half, Elon missed 15 of 16 shots during a key stretch in the second half as the Tribe whittled its deficit to just two points on three separate occasions in the final 7:48, the last of which came at 63-61, the same score the Phoenix edged James Madison by in the tournament’s opening round.

Pushed to the brink, Elon was able to do what James Madison fell just short of doing the night before, and hung on for a wire-to-wire win, closing on a small 5-2 run over the last two minutes.

Knight finished with game-highs of 24 points and nine fouls drawn, along with a team-best nine rebounds, but had only one other teammate score in double figures (senior forward Andy Van Vliet, who had 11 points) while the Phoenix had four double-figure scorers, led by freshman forward Hunter Woods (20 points, game-high 15 rebounds) and graduate guard Marcus Sheffield (19 points).

The result was extremely unlikely considering how each team fared early in conference play, with the Tribe vaulting to the top of the CAA standings after a 6-0 start and the Phoenix eventually rising from the ashes to finish 7-11 in the league and finding itself where William & Mary thought it would be — in the CAA semifinals — after starting CAA play just 1-7.  

Elon became the first seven seed to reach the CAA semifinals since 2004 and the lowest to reach that round since 2009. Nearly ousted one night by the lowest seed in the tournament, then shocking the second-highest seed in the tournament the following night, the Phoenix in two short days, has become the epitome of March Madness this month. Elon will seek to continue its improbable run in the second semifinal game on Monday night.

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One More Upset to Close a Crazy CAA Day: Northeastern Ousts Towson

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Seed-wise, the sixth-seeded Northeastern Huskies’ win over the third-seeded Towson Tigers was the third straight upset to end a surprising day of basketball in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament quarterfinals at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Sunday.

However, oddsmakers — which installed Northeastern (16-15) as two-point favorites — and the Huskies, who knew they were better than their seed and their conference record indicated after losing six league games by one possession and two others by two possessions this season, expected differently.

While senior forward Brian Fobbs (21 points) was Towson’s only scorer in double figures, Northeastern had four such scorers, as redshirt junior forward Maxime Boursiquot (16 points), senior guard Bolden Brace (15 points), junior guard Shaquille Walters (14 points) and freshman guard Tyson Walker (13 points) led a balanced 72-62 win that sent Towson (19-13) home early.

Trailing 11-9, the Huskies ended the half on a 24-12 run to lead, 33-23 at halftime.

Even without this year’s CAA scoring champion, redshirt senior guard Jordan Roland, unable to get on track (just eight points in 25 foul-plagued minutes), Northeastern was able to expand its lead to 47-31 early in the second half.

A furious Towson run brought the Tigers to within four points three different times over the final 8:21, the last of which came at 60-56, with 3:29 left, but the Huskies then slowly built its lead back to 12 points.

Northeastern’s victory sets up one of the most unlikely CAA semifinals in conference history, with a No. 6 seed facing a No. 7 seed, as the Huskies will unexpectedly be the higher seed against Elon on Monday. If Northeastern can win that game, it will get a chance to defend the CAA championship the Huskies captured as a two seed in last year’s CAA tournament in Charleston.


About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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