WASHINGTON, D.C. — To become Colonial Athletic Association champions for the first time, the Hofstra Pride will need to beat the defending CAA champion Northeastern Huskies, who denied Hofstra that right a year ago.
To do its part with setting up that rematch, Hofstra (25-8) had to first win a redo of another tournament game it won last year.
In 2019, top-seeded Hofstra ousted the fifth-seeded Delaware Blue Hens in a hard-fought, overtime CAA semifinal matchup. This year, with the two teams seeded the same, the Pride once again dispatched the Blue Hens in the same round, only with more ease.
After building a 22-point second-half lead, Hofstra held off a furious late rally to defeat Delaware, 75-61, before sixth-seeded Northeastern toppled seventh-seeded Elon in the other CAA semifinal at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Monday night.
The combination of senior guard Eli Pemberton (game-high 24 points) and junior guards Jalen Ray (19 points) and Tareq Coburn (13 points, game-high 12 rebounds, game-high eight fouls drawn) was too much for the Blue Hens to overcome, especially with their leading scorer (and the CAA’s third-best scorer), redshirt junior guard Nate Darling, being contained until he helped fuel a late charge which fell short.
Darling (13 points) started just 2-for-11 and was held to more than eight points below his season average on 5-for-16 shooting, including 3-for-11 from 3-point range.
Stopping Darling came one day after the Pride held Camren Wynter (the leading scorer and the CAA’s 10th-best scorer for eighth-seeded Drexel) scoreless on eight shots in a CAA quarterfinal win.
With another good defensive performance behind its tough 2-3 zone, Hofstra moved to 16-1 when allowing under 70 points this season.
Head coach Joe Mihalich said, “This defense that we play, everybody’s got a name for it, people think it’s a matchup [zone], people don’t like it, we love it. The credit’s got to go to our assistant coach Mike Farrelly because it’s kind of his baby. He’s like a mad scientist. It starts with the scouting. Three of our [assistants] are just off the charts with how we prepare. Our standard for preparation is high and all [of our assistants] are second to none with that.
“Mike Farrelly’s a genius and someday soon, I hope, some A.D. is gonna get smart and hire him because he’d be an incredible [head] coach.”
Darling said of Hofstra, “Their matchup zone is very difficult to play against. It’s hard to get some good, clean looks out of it and I felt sometimes, I maybe rushed my shots… but, credit to them.”
Head coach Martin Ingelsby said of Hofstra, “There’s a reason why they’re one of the best 3-point percentage defensive teams in the country (ranking 46th). They make you uncomfortable on the perimeter. They’re gonna live with 2-point shots.”
Although Delaware made five more shots overall than Hofstra (25-20), the Blue Hens did so on nine more attempts (59-50). Each team took 23 shots from behind the arc, but the Pride made seven more (12-5) and outscored Delaware 23-6 at the free throw line, where Hofstra took 17 more foul shots (29-12).
Those advantages more than canceled out Delaware’s sizable 38-12 scoring edge in the paint.
While Ray made all four of his 3-point attempts, Pemberton went 5-for-8 from behind the arc, and senior point guard Desure Buie (10 points) added a couple of 3s on five attempts.
“We’ve got a team of 3-point shooters,” Pemberton noted. “That’s just how we play. If you’re gonna let us shoot, it gets dangerous out there. We’ve got J-Ray, Desure Buie, myself and Tareq Coburn.”
On his own scoring, Pemberton said, “None of those shots, really, I had — besides one off a ball screen, was by myself — but everything else, my teammates found me.”
Ray added, “When I shot my first shot, it felt good and my teammates just motivated me to keep shooting. It kept going in and they just kept telling me to keep hooping like they know I can.”
Hofstra’s offense started fast, with Ray scoring six points, Coburn five and Pemberton adding a 3-pointer to stake the Pride to an early 14-4 lead.
The Blue Hens (which advanced with a quarterfinal win over fourth-seeded Charleston) countered with a 13-2 run, to lead, 17-16, but Hofstra responded with 13 straight points during a 22-7 surge to go up, 38-24, before the Pride settled for a 40-28 halftime advantage.
Leading 44-35 nearly six minutes later, Hofstra used a 17-4 spurt to expand its lead to 61-39 on a Pemberton 3-pointer with 8:50 remaining. A Pemberton layup maintained that margin 32 seconds later before Delaware began pressing Hofstra in the backcourt, something that head coach Joe Mihalich noted his team normally handles well but didn’t at that time.
Mihalich said, “We hope we get pressed — and I don’t mean to sound cocky – because we’re usually good against pressure. There was a feeling out there that we had to get our composure, and we did.”
But not before Delaware made things interesting by switching to a small lineup and pressing in the backcourt.
“We went small,” Ingelsby said. “We just tried to trap and make them uncomfortable. We got some steals, we got some momentum by doing that… we haven’t utilized that a lot. I didn’t go into the game thinking that we’d be down by that many points, but we had nothing to lose and we were just going to try to change the rhythm and see if we could extend the game, and if those last four or five minutes took two hours, that’s what we were gonna do.”
For a while, that worked, as the Blue Hens cut their deficit in half, to 63-52, in just 3:07, and further sliced the Pride’s lead to 66-58, with 2:29 left. But Delaware could get no closer as Hofstra sank nine of 10 free throws after that point.
“We got a little off,” Pemberton admitted. “They kind of messed us up with that, but once we got in the timeout, we just had to calm down. We’ve got a group of guards that can ball handle, so we just had to take our time. We just had to slow down. They were speeding the game up for us.”
Mihalich recalled, “I said, ‘Fellas, fellas, take a deep breath. If I would’ve told you this afternoon, at pregame meal, with four minutes to go, we’d be up 11, would you take it?’ And everybody was like, ‘Yeah.’ In a way, it’s good for us because it reminds us the game’s never over. We could be in a situation like that tomorrow or it could be the other way around.”
Impressed with the team that knocked out his own, Ingelsby said, “Tip your hat to Hofstra. I thought they played really well, especially in the first half, and got very confident on the offensive end. Any time we had a [defensive] breakdown, they really made us pay.
“They made a lot of winning plays and they put a lot of pressure on you on the defensive end. I thought we were a little rattled, playing a little fast and couldn’t get into any rhythm in the first half.”
Although the Pride’s losses have been few this season, Pemberton said they’ve been valuable in helping Hofstra to win an outright regular-season title and return to the CAA finals, both for a second straight year.
“The ups and downs, we appreciated those,” Pemberton said. “We learn from every loss and that shows the maturity of our guys from learning from those losses to make sure that we don’t do the [same] the following game. The growth of this team over these last few months is phenomenal. It’s crazy how much these guys have grown into new roles, but a lot of guys stepped up this year. It shows their maturity.”
Looking ahead to one final CAA hurdle to climb, Hofstra will have an opportunity to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in exactly 19 years, when the then-Flying Dutchmen won a second straight America East tournament title on March 10, 2001, before joining the CAA the following season.
“We’re ecstatic to be one of the two teams left,” Mihalich said.
On falling a win shy in last year’s CAA finals loss to second-seeded Northeastern, Ray added, “We didn’t complete our mission, so that was our goal for this season and we have one more game to finish. That feeling, to be in the championship game, was everything we worked for and that was just our main goal this year, to get back.”
Pemberton said, “It means everything to us to be back in this championship [game]. We worked all year for it, but just because we’re in the championship [game], doesn’t mean we’re going to win it. We came up short last year. We don’t want that same thing happening again.”
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Northeastern Eliminates Elon to Reach Third Straight CAA Finals
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Six Colonial Athletic Association losses this season by one possession. Two others by two possessions. It’s why many believed in the defending champion Northeastern Huskies in returning to the CAA finals, even as a six seed that merely went .500 (9-9) during the CAA regular season.
After surviving third-seeded Towson by 10 points a day earlier, that’s exactly where Northeastern (17-15) is going back to following a 68-60 CAA tournament semifinal win over the upstart seventh-seeded Elon Phoenix (13-21) at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Monday night.
A year after beating the top-seeded Hofstra Pride as a two seed to capture a CAA championship, the Huskies will have to go through Hofstra again to win another title after the Pride reached this year’s CAA finals with wins over eighth-seeded Drexel in the quarterfinals and a semifinal victory over fifth-seeded Delaware.
Ensuring they wouldn’t have to deal with another close loss, the Huskies started fast, scoring the first nine points and building a 20-point lead en route to a 37-21 halftime advantage.
On surviving its spate of narrow losses to once again land in the CAA finals for a third straight year, head coach Bill Coen said that by keeping the correct approach as a team, “Somewhere along the line, it’s gonna turn, and fortunately, it turned just in time for the CAA tournament.”
Although Elon had a pair of guards — Hunter McIntosh and Marcus Sheffield — score 20 points each, the rest of the Phoenix combined for that many points.
Northeastern was led by the CAA’s leading scorer, senior guard Jordan Roland (21 points), senior guard Bolden Brace (16 points and seven rebounds) and reserve guard Tyson Walker (10 points).
Using a 19-7 second-half run, Elon (which beat 10th-seeded James Madison in the first round on Saturday and stunned second-seeded William & Mary the following day) closed to within 52-45, with 5:46 remaining and was still within than margin with just under three minutes left, but could not get any closer after Roland hit consecutive 3-pointers to push the lead to 63-50 with 1:33 left.
Head coach Bill Coen said afterward, “We’re so grateful to be playing again in the championship game. It’s such an exciting time of year for everybody, coaches, players and fans, but with everything that’s on the line, with an NCAA bid, there’s nothing much like it.”
Contrasting last year’s CAA finals matchup against Hofstra versus this year’s, Coen added, “Two completely different seasons. Obviously, [Hofstra] had another outstanding season. We kind of lost our way a little bit. We played good basketball but didn’t always finish the job, so we’re coming at it from two different vantage points, but I think the goal for every coach is to have his team playing its best basketball at this time of year.
“Coach Mihalich does an outstanding job. He’s, in my opinion, one of the best coaches in the country. He gets his teams ready to play, he does a great job at developing players. They’ve got great guards year in and year out and their style of play is difficult to compete against — their matchup zone [defense], they’re explosive on offense and they’re stingy on defense, so it’s going to be a great battle and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Commenting on the irony of something which helped his own team last year, but which could aid Hofstra against Northeastern when the two meet on Tuesday night in only the third consecutive-year rematch in the 38-year history of the CAA, Coen recalled the Huskies’ motivation which drove them to ultimately beat the Pride in last year’s CAA title game one year after losing to Charleston in the same game.
“I definitely think it’s an emotional edge,” Coen said. “I know it [was] for our team last year. There was a bond that formed for the guys [that lost] to Charleston. Then… throughout the [next] year, our guys were dialed in and locked in, and I think I’ve seen that in Joe’s team this year. I think they’ve played that way. I think they’ve played with a chip. I think they’ve had great senior leadership and it’s going to be a difficult game for us, but that’s what you want if you’re a competitor. You want to go against the best, you want to try yourself against the best, and that’s what this time is all about.”