HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The Hofstra Pride has been nothing if not streaky in Colonial Athletic Association play this season. Hofstra has also made a habit of building seemingly comfortable second-half leads before barely holding on to win.
Those trends continued as the Pride (9-6, 5-3 CAA) completed a weekend home sweep of the Towson Tigers (3-7, 2-3 CAA) with a 74-69 victory at the Mack Sports Complex on Sunday.
Senior guards Tareq Coburn and Jalen Ray provided most of the offense in the first half but did little in the second half as Towson twice whittled a 14-point lead to just one over the final 3:20.
After Coburn (26 points) and Ray (16 points) combined for 34 of Hofstra’s 42 first-half points, their teammates accounted for 24 of the Pride’s 32 points in the second half, led by freshman forward Kvonn Cramer, who scored all 11 of his points after intermission to help hold off a late Towson surge.
Starting league play with two wins, second-place Hofstra lost its next three CAA games, but after beating Towson on the same floor by 13 points on Saturday and again the next day, the Pride has now won its last three conference games to move within two games of first-place Northeastern.
While closing wins easier still remains a concern, acting head coach Mike Farrelly (filling in for head coach Joe Mihalich, on indefinite medical leave) said of his team’s most recent turnaround, “The biggest thing is we’re playing with the right energy and effort. That’s got to become a standard. It can’t be a ‘sometimes’ thing. I think we’ve preached that right after the first Delaware game (Hofstra’s most recent loss, on Jan. 15) and throughout the course of the [past] week, and it’s got to continue.”
Although Coburn entered Sunday’s game shooting a pedestrian 34.4 percent (33-for-96) from 3-point range, including just 29.7 percent (11-for-37) in CAA play, and 2-for-8 from behind the arc the day before, Farrelly tried to get Coburn on track early from deep and his guard quickly responded.
“We wanted to get him some shots early,” Farrelly said. “We drew up the first play of [our first possession of] the game to get him a shot and he kind of caught fire after that.”
Coburn missed that initial shot, but he came back with a 3-pointer on Hofstra’s next trip before hitting another 3 as part of a four-point play, and then one more to cap a personal 10-9 run to start the game.
Two more 3s gave Coburn 16 points to lead the Pride to an 18-11 advantage after about 6½ minutes.
“I tried to help my team a lot on the first half,” Coburn said. “Every game, I play with confidence, regardless of [what happened before]. I shot 2-for-8 [from 3-point range] last game, [but] I’m still going to come in and still shoot as [many] shots as I can. That’s what I did today. I came out strong from the beginning and helped my team win with 21 points in the first half.”
Ray (who scored 16 first-half points) added three treys during the half (on seven attempts), including a key one in the final minute of the half that pushed Hofstra’s lead to 42-34 by halftime, after six straight Towson points.
Coburn matched a career-high with his seventh 3-pointer (on his ninth and final attempt) and seemed a sure bet to reach his career-high of 28 points (set twice earlier this season) just 1:14 into the second half, but he didn’t score another basket and took only one more shot the rest of the way as the Tigers focused on shutting him down from that point.
Farrelly said, “When [he] has a first half like [he did], you know [Towson head coach Pat] Skerry is saying, ‘Okay, well Coburn’s not getting another shot’… they switched up the way they were guarding some stuff. They made some adjustments and we had to look to score in some different ways.”
The same went for Ray, who was limited to just three second-half points on 1-for-12 shooting after going 5-for-9 in the opening half.
Ray scored his last points on a three-point play with 17:59 left before a layup by freshman guard Vukasin Masic (five points) gave the Pride the game’s largest lead, at 55-41, on a layup, 1:15 later.
Towson began to rattle Hofstra with some full-court and three-quarter-court pressure after that point, which sparked a 10-2 Tigers run, to trim the Pride’s lead to 57-51 with 12:11 remaining.
With Coburn and Ray silenced, that spurt grew to 24-11, to draw Towson to within 66-65, after a three-point play from redshirt senior guard Zane Martin (team-high 17 points) with 3:20 left.
While that extended run came over a period of more than 13 minutes, it was a four-minute stretch in particular which Farrelly had his eye on the most, based on similar problems spots Hofstra has had while having big leads cut in other games this season.
“I’ve been keenly aware of this, especially the stretch from eight minutes to four minutes in the second half,” Farrelly said. “I feel like we’ve struggled in that segment. Why in that segment? Do we get tired? Does our energy lapse a little bit?”
Searching for answers, Farrelly added, “It happened again today. I thought we got really good shots in that stretch — we were getting some layups, we were getting to the rim, we were getting some good stuff [but not scoring]… and also with us not scoring, it allowed [Towson] to get in transition a little bit, so that didn’t help either. So, why does it happen? I wish I knew. If I had an answer for that, we would fix it and stop it. But, I’m certainly very aware of [the question of] how do we kind of get through that stretch a little bit more effectively? It’s certainly in our coaching staff’s minds throughout the course of the game.”
As the Pride survived its latest near-collapse, junior forward Isaac Kante (10 points, seven rebounds) helped keep the Tigers at bay with a hook shot in the paint before handing out a nice dish to Cramer for a tough layup through traffic to give the Pride some breathing room, at 70-65, with 2:12 to go. But four straight Towson free throws sliced the margin back to one with 1:20 left.
Cramer pulled down a key defensive rebound and made a pair of free throws with 23.7 seconds remaining to give Hofstra a 72-69 edge before the Pride pressured a frontcourt pass that was a little high for redshirt sophomore guard Nicolas Timberlake, who bobbled the ball and stepped out of bounds with it.
That allowed Coburn to go from being a second-half non-factor to sealing the win on two free throws with 4.3 seconds left.
Although he was no longer shooting and scoring like he was in the first half, Coburn focused on other ways to contribute and staying ready in the final seconds when needed.
He said, “Just play defense, crash the offensive glass, whatever I can to help my team win, and just stay mentally locked in, and that’s why I hit the two free throws.”
While Farrelly knows his team still needs to learn how to close games better, he pointed to what Hofstra did right to keep its modest winning streak going in the normally very competitive CAA.
“We made the plays down the stretch that we needed to,” he said. “That mental toughness is what you need because in this league, I think there are some good teams. I don’t think anybody’s necessarily great and there’s nobody bad, either. So, a lot of games are going to be like this and you have to be ready to be in those grind games every time you go out there.”
In addition to winning physical battles, particularly against a physically tough team like Towson, Farrelly added, “These games are about mental toughness, too, and that’s something that I really think we’re really starting to develop and I think we have to start to embrace because every game in this league is going to be a grind.”
The goal now is to find consistency and avoiding another losing streak while Hofstra is on its latest stretch of consecutive wins. That search continues with a two-game, back-to-back trip at North Carolina-Wilmington next weekend — a visit that may tell the Pride a lot about whether the CAA defending champions are poised to live up to being the preseason choice to defend their title or whether they may remain inconsistent for a while.