HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – Acting head coach Mike Farrelly was gracious enough to credit the man he’s filling in for, but the imprint he left on head coach Joe Mihalich’s team last year carried Farrelly to his first head coaching win at the Mack Sports Complex on Monday night.
Although some of the key pieces are different from the Hofstra Pride squad that captured its first Colonial Athletic Association tournament title in March, the emphasis on turning around a game with good defense – even when Hofstra’s offense is struggling – remain the same under Farrelly, who was thrust into Mihalich’s head coaching role and has remained in that position since Mihalich was forced to take a temporary leave of absence from the team due to undisclosed health reasons in late August.
Despite missing 14 straight shots and going more than 9½ minutes without a basket down the stretch of the first half, Hofstra (1-1) dug in defensively, as was the Pride’s trademark with Farrelly leading the defense as the team’s Associate Head Coach under Mihalich.
Erasing a nine-point halftime deficit, Hofstra crushed the Farleigh Dickinson Knights (0-3) under the weight of a 36-9 wave while cruising to a 73-58 win during a pandemic-induced, fanless home opener one day after the Pride lost its season opener at 24th-ranked Rutgers on Sunday.
After squandering first-half leads of 18-8 and 25-18 – built mainly on the back of junior forward Isaac Kante (16 points, nine rebounds) – Hofstra (picked to defend its CAA regular-season crown from last year) allowed the Farleigh Dickinson Knights (the preseason pick to win the Northeast Conference) to close the opening half on a 23-6 surge and lead, 40-31, on the strength of 54.8 percent shooting.
That’s when Farrelly’s defensive teachings from a year ago took hold with Farrelly now addressing the Pride as the team’s head coach.
Coming out of the locker room with a transformed sense of purpose, Hofstra went on a 12-1 run, fueled by 10 points from senior guard Tareq Coburn (game-high 21 points), who aggressively attacked the basket immediately after intermission.
Moments later, freshman forward Kvonn Cramer (who has already impressed over his first two games with his athleticism and high energy off the bench) gave the Pride the lead for good – 47-46, with 13:21 left – on a thunderous, driving dunk.
As Hofstra’s stifling defense caused FDU to miss 18 of its first 21 shots to start the second half, the Pride kept pulling away. The lead ballooned to as much as 70-51 on a Coburn jumper with 3:01 remaining.
“The second-half performance is the way we need to play,” Farrelly noted. “We just didn’t come out with a purpose in the first half. We were scoring some points early, but we weren’t bearing down on defense… we didn’t match their intensity. We were getting beat off the bounce a lot, just not what we needed to do on the defensive side of the floor.”
Farrelly continued, “I guess they got the message at halftime. The second half, we had that energy. A good learning experience for us… you have to approach every game the same way. The second half, we played the way that we’re supposed to.”
Half-joking, Farrelly added, “I probably should have told them that before the game. Maybe we would’ve played all 40 minutes that way.”
But Farrelly doesn’t miss many opportunities to teach what’s right, especially when it comes to defense. Not even with a brand-new player like Cramer starting so well.
Although Cramer’s contributions (12 points on 6-of-11 shooting and game-highs of 10 rebounds and four steals in 28 minutes) were notable in what became an easy Hofstra win, Farrelly yelled to Cramer to quickly get back on defense with the Pride up 17 points, with a little over a minute to go.
“Kvonn Cramer didn’t sprint back on defense,” Farrelly recalled. “We had just made a shot and Kvonn didn’t sprint back, and I just yelled out, ‘Habits!’ It doesn’t matter if you’re up 20, down 20, whatever. You’ve got to build those habits, you’ve got to play the right way, you have to respect the game at all times.”
That type of leadership has extended to Coburn (15 second-half points), who in his final year, recognized that he had to set the right example in the second half for younger players like Cramer (10 second-half points), among others.
Coburn attacking the basket set the tone in the second half for Hofstra, when the Pride outscored the Knights 24-6 in the paint after being edged by FDU, 18-16, in the lane before halftime.
“It’s still a new team,” said Coburn. “It’s new roles, new positions, we’ve all got to find a groove. The second half, as a leader, as a team captain, once I started being more aggressive — offensively, defensively — it led to other players picking me up and we started going as a team, collectively.”
Figuring out roles and creating roster cohesion with some main holdovers, yet with a significantly different team overall than the one that qualified for the NCAA tournament last year before the Covid pandemic denied Hofstra the chance to play in that tournament, are only a couple of the adjustments the Pride will have to make this season.
Cutting down on travel due to the pandemic will also create an odd schedule of playing the same teams in CAA play on consecutive weekend days throughout January and February rather than the normal slate of playing different teams with off days in between, as in past years.
Starting the season with a couple of New Jersey teams on consecutive days is something from which Farrelly believes his team can draw.
“The reason that this scheduling opportunity was so attractive was because it was going to put us in a position that we could play on back-to-back days to get us ready for what it’s going to be like in conference play,” he said. “That’s why when we got approached with this opportunity less than two weeks ago, I said, ‘Yeah, it’s something we should do.’ It’s a little harder when you’ve got to get ready for a different team on Day 2, but still, just getting our bodies right, having a walkthrough, being ready to play within basically, about 24 hours… how do you play, how do you respond on back-to-back days? It’s a really good learning experience and good practical experience to get us ready for all that.”
Another thing that will take some getting used to is playing in empty arenas with fans barred from attending because of Covid.
“One major point we’ve had is that it’s going to be a lot about our energy,” Farrelly said. “There’s going to be runs in the game. When you have those bad runs, can the team rally? When you have good runs, do you think you’re on top of the world, or is it about that next possession and locking down on that? You don’t have that crowd energy to rely on. It’s something we’re going to have to get used to because whether you’re at home or on the road, it’s about the energy that you’re going to create and have as a constant over the course of that forty minutes.”
On that idea, Coburn added, “From the jump, we have to piggyback on each other, communicate a lot, the bench plays a huge role for us. If you’re down, there’s no fans to keep you going, no defensive chants, nothing. So, it’s just us.”
But that’s something that the Pride seemed to have no problem with during the second half against FDU, to enter Farrelly into the Hofstra record books.
While Farrelly was grateful to receive praise for his first head coaching victory, he instead pointed to Mihalich, a four-time conference Coach of the Year (three times with Niagara in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and two years ago, in the CAA with Hofstra) who guided the Pride to CAA regular-season titles three times in the past five years and to the school’s only CAA tournament title last year.
“Thanks very much for people [congratulating me] on my first win, but I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t mention Coach [Mihalich],” said Farrelly. “I wouldn’t be here without him. He always says, ‘People don’t understand how hard it is to win one game.’ He was texting me all night, last night, and helped me get ready for [tonight]. I owe him everything. So, this [win] is for him.”
Honoring Mihalich in that way was merely the first step in what those like Farrelly, Coburn, Kante and others who were part of last year’s championship run are attempting to repeat after last season’s abrupt end and this year’s unorthodox circumstance amid a pandemic that continues to rage through the nation nearly nine months later.
“All we can do is turn the page,” Coburn said. “I’ve still got another year, so I’ve got another crack at March Madness again.”
That chance could happen if Hofstra plays much of the season like it did in the second half of Farrelly’s first win.