WASHINGTON, D.C. — A long wait of nearly two decades is mercifully over. The last time the Hofstra Pride went to the NCAA tournament, the team had a different nickname and played in a different conference.
But now, the Colonial Athletic Association’s Hofstra Pride finally has a championship in common with the America East Conference’s Hofstra Flying Dutchmen after winning its first conference tournament title over the previously defending CAA champion Northeastern Huskies, 70-61, at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Tuesday night.
Hofstra’s run to its first CAA tournament title not only marks its first NCAA tournament berth since capturing consecutive America East tournament titles in 2000 and 2001, but the Pride (26-8) fittingly went through three former America East teams in this year’s CAA tournament.
First, it was ousting eight-seeded Drexel in the quarterfinals and fifth-seeded Delaware in the semifinals (both of which left the America East for the CAA along with Hofstra, starting in 2001-02) and then sixth-seeded Northeastern (17-16), which moved from the America East to the CAA in 2005-06.
In a fiercely-contested battle featuring six ties and eight lead changes, the Pride trailed, 48-44, with eight minutes left, after a 3-pointer senior by guard Bolden Brace (13 points), who made All-Tournament Team, but Hofstra responded with a 20-6 run, to take a 64-54 lead with 1:36 left, on a 3-pointer by the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, 23-year-old senior point guard Desure Buie (game-high 20 points, five rebounds, five assists), who later held his daughter Jada on the same floor, amidst a joyous team celebration.
After Brace’s trey, Hofstra started its game-changing spurt with a pair of its own All-Tournament Team selections stepping up when needed most.
A layup by senior guard Eli Pemberton (19 points, seven rebounds) brought the Pride to within two points before junior guard Jalen Ray (17 points, eight rebounds) hit consecutive 3-pointers, the first of which put Hofstra ahead for good, 49-48, with 6:54 remaining.
Ray, who started just 1-for-8 overall and 1-for-4 from 3-point range before heating up, said, “I was struggling from 3 early, but [my coaches and teammates] were telling me to just keep shooting, and that’s what boosted my confidence, so I just kept shooting the ball, and [Northeastern] was letting me shoot. So, you see what happened.”
With the Pride still leading by only two points, Buie began to take control of the game late, scoring half of his points over the final 3:44.
Buie hit a jumper before getting a steal that led to a pair of Ray free throws for a 58-52 lead with 3:06 left.
Drawing contact on a drive along the right blocks, Buie scored off the glass and made a free throw to start making Hofstra’s long-awaited dream a reality, at 61-52, with 2:27 to play.
Less than a minute later, Buie showed a nice crossover dribble leading into a long-range 3-pointer than swished through the net for a 10-point lead as Buie fell backward to the floor.
Buie said, “Truth be told, that’s a credit to my teammates because I was struggling for a little minute and they told me, ‘You’re going to get the ball. Make something happen.’ They drew up a play for me and I made something happen. That’s a credit to my teammates and my coaches.”
“Big Shot Buie,” Pemberton kidded.
A 3-point answer from redshirt senior guard and All-Tournament team selection Jordan Roland (the CAA’s leading scorer this season, who was limited to 11 points), brought the Huskies to within 64-57, but the Pride made all six of its free throw attempts over the final 1:03 to secure its moment in history.
While Northeastern made three more field goals than Hofstra (25-22) on two fewer attempts (55 versus 57), and each team went an identical 10-for-25 from 3-point range, the Pride (the nation’s 10th- best free throw shooting team) went 16-for-17 at the foul line while the Huskies hardly visited there, going 1-for-2. Although turnovers were practically even (10 for Northeastern and nine for Hofstra), the Pride held a decided 20-5 edge in points off turnovers.
Just as Hofstra’s two leading scorers all season, Buie and Pemberton, complemented each other well, one finished the other’s sentence as the duo sat down with Mihalich and Ray and the postgame press conference following an extended, jubilant celebration, including the handing out of trophies, the traditional cutting of each net, and countless hugs, smiles and embraces.
“What a time,” Buie started.
“To be alive,” Pemberton finished, with a smile.
Losing head coach Bill Coen said as the Pride was celebrating, “I’d like to congratulate Coach Mihalich and the Hofstra Pride on an outstanding year and a CAA championship. I want to wish them all the best as they go forward and represent the conference in the NCAA tournament.”
Coen, whose team scored 11 straight points after Buie opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, and which led, 30-28, at halftime, added, “I thought we played a really strong first half [and] a very competitive game overall, but in the end, I just thought it was a little too much Desure Buie. He was an outstanding player. He’s had an outstanding career. He made big shot after big shot to help them earn the CAA championship.”
Also noting the effort of sophomore transfer forward Isaac Kante (who scored nine points while posting a career-high 15 rebounds), Coen said, “He’s a big body and he was climbing all over the backboard.”
One day earlier, after a semifinal win over seventh-seeded Elon, which followed a quarterfinal upset over third-seeded Towson, Coen noted the familiar position Hofstra was in, one that his own team was in last year, after losing the CAA final to Charleston before bouncing back to win the title over Hofstra last season.
Brace echoed the same sentiments, once again being on the losing side this time.
“That feeling of losing and then coming back next year and having another opportunity is a special feeling because you don’t get that unless you lose [first],” Brace said. “I think, for sure, [Hofstra] with an edge and played with that desire to win, and I think they deserve it. They’re a great program, a great team, [with] a lot of great players and their coach is amazing.”
Brace’s high praise for head coach Joe Mihalich was reciprocated for Northeastern and the rest of the CAA, to the point that Mihalich credited the caliber of the CAA with making his own team tough enough to win.
The coach who has long uttered the mantra, “The game honors toughness,” said, “I think you might start by talking about our league. The Colonial, I always say this is the best conference in the country that nobody knows about, and if we are tough, it’s because people like Billy Coen and Northeastern, who I have just so much respect for, [head coach] Pat Skerry at Towson, [head coach] Martin Ingelsby at Delaware — I’m not going to mention every name — but, great coaches, they do things the right way, and they’re all tough.
“So, to win, you’ve got to be tougher, and it’s all about our conference. This conference is absolutely a great basketball conference, and it’s because of the people in it, the coaches in it, the players in it, and to win it, you’re not going to win it if you’re not tough. Northeastern was the tougher team last year, that’s why they won. The year before that, it was Charleston, that’s why they won because they were tougher. Whoever wins it next year, is going to have to be the toughest team in the league.”
Flanked by Pemberton to his left and Buie and Ray to his right, Mihalich said, “It’s just euphoric. to be sitting up here with these guys and to be in that locker room, to be with these guys every day is a blessing, something I treasure. It’s also at the same time, kind of humbling. It’s such a wonderful thing. We’re just gonna enjoy every second and let it soak in, but champions win championships.
“The guys I’m sitting next to right now and the guys in that locker room, their work ethic, their attitude, their character. They’re all better people than they are players and that’s why you win. You win with good people. Surround yourself with good people if you want to be successful, and that’s what Hofstra basketball is all about.”
Recalling one source of motivation to reach the heights he and the Pride did this season, Buie said, “You dream about this as a kid. I remember running home to go see UConn battle in March Madness. Kemba Walker was my role model, so I use to run home and see his games. I just wanted to be a part of something special and I couldn’t trade these guys for the world. They mean everything to me. They push me every day to be better. [When] you’ve got great people that care about you so much and want to be better. I’d run through a wall any of these guys. That’s the main thing. I just wanted to win so bad.”
Pemberton added, “This feeling is just surreal. I think this brotherhood, it shows a lot about this team, how we fight for each other. All the downtimes of the season, to the times that we’re up [like] right now, we definitely would run through a wall for each other. We always have our backs. We move as a clique. I think that’s the reason why we’re here today.”
For Mihalich, who won MAAC titles and reached the NCAA tournament with Niagara in 2005 and 2007, winning a championship game against a fellow premier CAA program made this accomplishment special.
“It is awfully sweet because [Northeastern] is such a good team and such a good program, and Billy Coen is such a great coach,” Mihalich said. “That’s why it’s sweet. It’s not just because we won, it’s because it’s something to be really proud of. We beat a bunch of champions. The championship went through them. They were the defending champions. To win the championship, you’ve got to knock out the champ and that’s what we did. If it is sweet, it’s because of how much respect we have for Northeastern and as I mentioned earlier, everybody in this league.”
Adding a CAA tournament title to his resume is thus far, the pinnacle of a remarkable seven-year turnaround Mihalich has guided at Hofstra after taking over a program that was at rock bottom, following a 7-25 season that included as many Division I wins (six) as player arrests just before Mihalich arrived.
The Pride went 10-23 the following season, but Hofstra has won between 19 and 27 games in five of the past six seasons since, while the only three regular-season CAA titles the program has in its history, including consecutive outright titles the past two years.
Finding players which check certain characteristic boxes is what Mihalich says has driven that success.
He said, “I always talk about six things — good person, good player, a good student, loves the game, hates to lose, works hard. That defines our team.
“It’s about culture. I’m proud to talk about our sustained success. It’s hard to do that, but you do it when you have three people (Pemberton, Buie and Ray) like the people you have up here (sitting next to Mihalich).”
Mihalich continued, “Nobody outworks us, nobody loves the games more than us, and we hate to lose. It might sound overly simplistic, but that defines the culture of the people in our program, which in turn, defines our culture.”
One ingredient that was missing while falling just short in past years was a stingier defense, something that Hofstra took note of in watching Northeastern’s past success.
“They’re hard to score against,” Mihalich said. “It’s a trademark against Northeastern. It’s something that we admire. We’re polar opposites. They play good, tough man-to-man, and they don’t let you use ball screens, they’re physical, and we’ll play a zone [sometimes] for 40 minutes, and they both work. Last year, their defense worked a little better. This year, ours did.”
That was the case against many opponents this season for Hofstra, which moved to 17-1 when allowing under 70 points this year.
The Pride’s latest tournament title came exactly 19 years after Hofstra won its second straight America East title on March 10, 2001, under then-head coach Jay Wright, who has since won two national championships with Villanova and become one of the nation’s top head coaches.
Many NCAA tournament projections over the past several weeks have listed Hofstra as a potential 13 or 14 seed facing Villanova as a 3 or 4 seed.
“That’s definitely going to happen,” Mihalich quipped. “They sit in that room, this committee, they’ve got the easiest job in the world because Joey Brackets (ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi) tells them who should play who. They know their sideshows. They’re gonna make Jay Wright play against his old school. That’s a definite. You can take it to the bank, and I hope it doesn’t happen, I really hope it doesn’t happen.
The first of Wright’s two America East tournament titles came with star guard and eventual first-round NBA draft pick Craig “Speedy” Claxton, who is now an assistant coach under Mihalich.
“I think it would just be amazing,” Pemberton said of possibly meeting Claxton’s old coach in the NCAA tournament. “You know, Jay Wright, he set the standard for this program. He [put] this program on the map with Speedy and I’m sure Speedy would appreciate it, and for him to see us in the tournament [again now], it’s been a long time. I think [Wright] would definitely be happy to play against us. Give him a lot of credit for helping this program and Coach [Mihalich] came in and got the job done, too.”
Noting Wright’s continued connection with Hofstra, Mihalich said, “He’s been awesome with us. He texts [us] and follows us, and supports us. I don’t know why he’s not in the Hall of Fame already because he’s one of a kind. If we end up playing them, there’ll be a lot of mixed emotions there.”
Whichever team Hofstra draws on Selection Sunday, Pemberton believes his squad will have a good chance.
“We’re dangerous,” he said. “[We have] elite guards who play for each other, a great big (Kante) [and] we’re small, but we run fast. Our motto is hungry dogs run fast and we’re definitely hungry.”
In the meantime, the Pride is just enjoying the moment that was a long time in the making.
“I think we’re all a little numb,” Mihalich said. “I think we want to make sure this isn’t a dream. We’re gonna pinch each other on the way out of here. When we wake up tomorrow, I know the first thing I’m going to do is pop on ESPN and look at the bottom of the ticker there, and see, “CAA Champions – Hofstra.”
The journey to reach that feeling began the moment Hofstra lost its third CAA title game, after losing in 2007 and 2016 to UNCW before falling short against Northeastern last year.
“This feeling is everything,” Ray said. “This has been our mission since day one at the end of last year. This time, we completed our mission.”