Two years ago, as a sophomore coming off the bench, Jalen Ray missed four of five shots while scoring seven points (close to his season average of 7.7 points per game) as he watched eventual NBA draft pick and the Hofstra Pride’s second all-time leading scorer, Justin Wright-Foreman, carry their top-seeded team to a Colonial Athletic Association semifinal overtime victory over the fifth-seeded Delaware Blue Hens with a CAA tournament record 42 points.
Ironically, after Wright-Foreman tied that game with Hofstra’s only field goal in overtime, it was Ray who scored the game’s last four points, all from the foul line.
This time, it was Ray’s turn to dispatch Delaware (again, a five seed) and advance Hofstra (now a four seed) in the CAA tournament.
Scoring 22 of his career-high 34 points (tied for second-most for a Hofstra player in a CAA tournament game), Ray simply refused to let the Pride’s season — or his career — end early as the senior guard carried Hofstra (13-9, 8-6 CAA to an 83-75 quarterfinal victory over the Blue Hens (7-8, 5-4 CAA) at the Atlantic Union Bank Center, on the campus of top-seeded James Madison, in Harrisonburg, VA, on Sunday.
“From him,” Ray said of Wright-Foreman, “I just learned that ‘takeover’ mindset that he showed and I just tried to do that myself.”
Although Ray’s performance was reminiscent of Wright-Foreman’s of a couple of years prior, the CAA’s second-leading scorer this season did have a little more help than his former teammate had then, with three Hofstra players reaching double figures, including senior forward Isaac Kante (14 points, game-high 13 rebounds), senior guard Tareq Coburn (12 points) and sophomore point guard Caleb Burgess, who narrowly missed his first career triple-double, with 11 points, a career-best nine rebounds and a game-high eight assists.
Leading his teammates is a role that Ray relishes, especially when the stakes are high.
“I just wanted to start the momentum for my team since they look at me as a leader, so I just had to be the example for everybody and they just fell in line,” Ray said. “I like the big games. I just like being that leader for my team.”
Acting head coach Farrelly added of Ray, “He loves the big moments. He’s always been clutch in those moments.”
Yet it took a while for Ray to demonstrate that after he missed seven of 11 shots, including three of four from behind the arc, and four of seven free throw attempts, before halftime.
Following a seesaw first half which had nine of the game’s 13 ties and 17 of the contest’s 20 lead changes, resulting in a 38-36 halftime lead for Delaware, the Blue Hens scored the first five points of the second half.
But Hofstra turned a seven-point deficit into a lead of the same margin with an 18-4 run (to lead, 54-47, with 12:41 left), highlighted by a trio of 3-pointers from Ray, who went 7-for-12, including 4-for-6 from 3, while making all four of his free throw attempts, after intermission.
“Jalen Ray is a heck of an offensive player,” head coach Martin Ingelsby said. “He made some big shots.”
After Delaware drew within 65-63, with 5:34 remaining, Ray added four more points during a 7-0 Pride spurt to push Hofstra’s lead to 72-63 less than a minute later.
Ray was done scoring by that point, but his damage was already done as the Blue Hens were not able to trim the margin under six points over the final 3:55.
“He’s a very talented offensive player and he got hot,” Ingelsby added of Ray. “[Hofstra] did a good job of getting him in areas where he could be successful… we needed to be better to slow him down and we didn’t do that. He was very effective in the second half.”
In the process of leading the Pride into the next round, Ray reached 1,314 career points, passing last year’s CAA tournament Most Valuable Player, Desure Buie, by four points, for 18th-place all-time in Hofstra history.
Last March, Buie led Ray and the rest of the Pride to their first CAA tournament championship but Hofstra was denied its chance to dance for the first time since winning the America East tournament in 2001 after Covid-19 pandemic restrictions canceled last year’s NCAA tournament.
“We achieved our mission last year by winning, but we never got to play [in the NCAA tournament], so this is just for the players that came before us,” Ray said. “This is for them, really, to win again and make it to the [NCAA] tournament.”
It’s also for head coach Joe Mihalich, who with Farrelly as his associate head coach, guided the Pride to CAA regular-season and tournament titles last season before being placed on medical leave during the ensuing offseason.
In tribute, Hofstra placed the camel-hair-colored sports jacket Mihalich wore in last year’s CAA tournament around the back of an empty chair on the Pride’s bench on Sunday.
“We will do that again tomorrow and I do think that inspired us [today],” Farrelly said. “We have brought that jacket everywhere we have gone since being down here (in Virginia, for the tournament).”
Applying Mihalich’s type of encouragement whenever Hofstra was without a player in the past to Farrelly, Ray said, “We miss Mihalich on the bench, but he always said, ‘Next man up,’ so that’s what Coach Farrelly is and he’s been doing a good job.”
As far as leading in the CAA tournament, the torch likewise, has been passed, from Wright-Foreman to Buie, and now, to Ray.
Farrelly noted both the similarities and some differences between Ray’s performance and that of his predecessor two years earlier.
“Justin was basically going 1-on-5 in that game but Jalen was just unbelievable today,” Farrelly said. “It was a little bit different. They started bringing more attention to Jalen late, but I think he already had it going too much by that point. You know, [he’s a] senior, [it’s a] big moment and he’s seen those big games. He’s seen Justin, he’s seen Desure, he’s seen the way those guys stepped up, and I was obviously very happy that he was able to do that today.”
Now in the position that players like Wright-Foreman and Buie were in before, Ray can see his college career winding down as he faces his last opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament.
“Being a senior, it’s my last ride and it’s just three wins in three days,” said Ray. “I’ve just got to give it my all.”
Making that more difficult not only for Ray but for every player on each team was a lengthy Covid-induced layoff which shortened the seasons of every CAA team this year and which had the Pride playing its first game in three weeks and the Blue Hens, their first contest in five weeks.
“It was really hard because one day, we were in practice and playing, and the next day, we couldn’t do anything for two weeks,” said senior guard Kevin Anderson, who led Delaware with 22 points.
“We hadn’t played a college basketball game since January 31st,” Ingelsby noted. “There’s nothing that I’ve ever experienced that I can go back and reference how to lead a group during those times, and I give our guys a lot of credit for not losing by 25 points and being ready to compete.
“You can’t underestimate the impact it has on your group. I thought over time, we were a little fatigued — not just physically, but mentally, through the course of the game, to really think and be sharp for 40 minutes.”
Taking a more relaxed approach of simply being happy to play again served Hofstra better, even in a quiet arena with no fans allowed, and an early 11 a.m. ET start time.
“It was just such a different year but I think the biggest thing is — and I heard Jalen reference it — just the appreciation of getting to play [the tournament],” Farrelly said. “Missing it and being away from it, and missing those games, and being on that pause, I think has made us appreciate the moment that we’re in.”
Having overcome the first hurdle, Hofstra — which will be playing in the CAA semifinals for a third straight year — has one more step to return to the CAA finals to have the same chance as it did last year at cutting down the nets.
That will be at 6 p.m. ET on Monday when the Pride faces eight-seeded Elon, which after losing its first seven CAA games has since won its past six games, including four regular-season CAA tilts, a first-round win over ninth-seeded Towson and a stunning quarterfinal upset, overcoming a 15-point second-half deficit to edge top-seeded James Madison on its home floor.