Anyone who thought the Hofstra Pride caught a break by avoiding top-seeded James Madison in the 2021 Colonial Athletic Association tournament clearly hadn’t seen the Elon Phoenix play over the past three weeks.
True to its nickname, the Phoenix (10-8, 4-7 CAA) has risen from the ashes of an eight-game losing streak and an 0-7 start in CAA play to become the first No. 8 seed to reach the CAA finals.
Closing on a 21-4 run, Elon upset fourth-seeded Hofstra (13-10, 8-6 CAA), pulling away for a 76-58 semifinal win at JMU’s Atlantic Union Bank Center in Harrisonburg, VA on Monday night.
The result ended the Pride’s CAA title defense after Hofstra won its first CAA tournament championship last March. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic canceling last year’s NCAA tournament, the Pride’s dancing drought has now reached two decades, with Hofstra last appearing in the NCAA tournament in 2001 as America East tournament champions.
Winning its final four regular-season games (all in the CAA), Elon ousted ninth-seeded Towson and rallied from a 15-point, second-half deficit to knock out James Madison before extending its winning streak to seven straight games by eliminating Hofstra, which beat fifth-seeded Delaware on Sunday.
Although Elon was playing for a third consecutive day and for the seventh time since Feb. 14, the Phoenix appeared far more energetic and continuously outworked the Pride, which was playing for the second day in a row following a Covid-induced, three-week layoff.
Nowhere was that more evident than after Elon missed shots as the Phoenix turned an 18-5 offensive rebounding edge (as part of a 48-28 overall rebounding advantage) into difference-making 21-3 dominance in second-chance points.
Senior guard Ikenna Ndugba (14 points, game-high 10 rebounds) said, “The percentage of shots that go in after an [offensive rebound] is pretty high and we just wanted to get as many hands on the basketball as we could.”
Acting head coach Mike Farrelly (filling in for head coach Joe Mihalich, who went on medical leave during the offseason, after guiding Hofstra to CAA regular-season and tournament titles last year) admitted, “We just seemed a step slow and then we had a great stretch and cut it to one and then just couldn’t get over the hump.
“Sometimes, it’s just about wanting the ball and going and getting it, and I do think there were times when we were a half-step slow. We addressed it at halftime… but give [Elon] credit for going and getting the ball.”
What each team did after forcing the other to lose the ball didn’t help Farrelly’s team either. Although turnovers were roughly even (Hofstra had one more, 12-11), Elon held a significant 16-6 margin in points off turnovers.
Meanwhile, the Pride often settled too much, shooting just 30 percent (9-for-30) from 3-point range while making half of its 20 shots from inside the arc. Hofstra’s two leading scorers this season, senior guards Jalen Ray (20 points) and Tareq Coburn (six points) were the primary culprits of that type of inefficient shot selection. Ray went just 5-for-16 and 2-for-4 from 2, while Coburn went 1-for-6 overall while taking five 3-pointers.
After Hofstra battled through nine ties and 17 lead changes in the opening half against Delaware, the Pride and Phoenix produced five ties and 10 lead changes with the higher seed settling for a slim 34-33 lead at halftime.
Hofstra scored the next five points, within the first minute of the second half, to take its biggest lead, 39-33, but Elon stormed back with a 19-3 run — fueled by 13 second-chance points — to lead, 52-42, with 13:24 remaining.
Rallying with a 12-3 spurt, capped on consecutive 3-pointers from Coburn and sophomore guard Caleb Burgess (16 points), the Pride got within 55-54, with 8:15 left.
However, out of a timeout, sophomore guard Hunter McIntosh (10 points), last year’s CAA Rookie of the Year, hit a long straight-away 3-pointer before freshman guard Darius Burford (team-high 19 points) scored the next four points to put Elon up, 62-54.
Head coach Mike Schrage said, “I was most proud of our guys, after their two responses when Hofstra made their runs. At the start of the second half, you could tell [Hofstra] had a lot of pride to jump us. We didn’t call a timeout and our guys responded. And then when they cut it to one, and we did call a timeout, Hunter McIntosh came out of that timeout and hit an incredibly important shot. That shot counted so much more than three points.”
Ray answered the run that McIntosh’s trey triggered with his own 3-pointer, but the Phoenix scored the next nine points to put the game out of reach, at 71-57, with 3:47 to go.
Afterward, Ray said, “I’m a good competitor and losing always sucks, especially in the tournament because [we] don’t have another game after this, so it hurts even more.”
While it seemed that Elon should have been the more fatigued team, Ndugba said that the emphasis that Schrage places on physical recuperation between games aided greatly in flipping that notion on Hofstra.
Ndugba said, “[Coach Schrage] wants us to get rest and I think how he structures the film sessions, and then we have recovery sessions in the hotel, that helps a lot, and I think that’s what led to us looking like we had a pep in our step.”
Farrelly later said, “Credit to Elon and Coach Schrage — they’re playing awesome at the right time of year. Their energy is unbelievable. They did an unbelievable job tonight.”
That wasn’t the case earlier in the year when Elon lost three straight games (including its first two in CAA play) before going on a 27-day break due to Covid restrictions and then restarting with a 66-43 loss at Delaware on Jan. 27.
“They didn’t look great their first game out of their pause,” Farrelly noted. “They were off for somewhere near four weeks and Delaware beat their doors off and then they came back from that and really fought hard that next day against Delaware (losing 75-70), and then just kind of kept getting better.”
Elon actually then suffered a 21-point loss at James Madison, had two more games canceled due to Covid, then lost by nine points at home to JMU, and dropped an 18-point decision at Charleston on Feb. 13 before starting a winning streak the following day with an 11-point win at Charleston.
Schrage recalled, “Early in the year we were only having one guy in double figures, so it just shows growth in our guys, it shows that they’ve been able to get in a rhythm and get more comfortable. We believe in all our guys and that’s why we’re winning. We’re defending at a high level and guys have grown their offensive games and their comfortability at that end, as well.”
While Elon’s offense improved, its defense triggered the Phoenix’s turnaround more than anything else did, along with simply starting to play on a more regular basis.
During Elon’s losing skid, the Phoenix never allowed fewer than 66 points and as much as 78, surrendering 70 or more points six times in eight games. Since then, Elon has allowed fewer than 59 points five times in seven games.
“We had so little time together between Thanksgiving and the end of January,” Schrage said. “We’re never going to be defeatists in our program. Our guys love the gym, they love the process, they grew their games as a result of having some continued time together. They believe in themselves, they believe in each other and they really bought into defense this year.”
To get past Hofstra, sticking to the game plan was also key for Elon.
Ndugba noted, “We just wanted to capitalize on our points going into the game — getting rebounds, sharing the ball, making open shots, and having fun doing it. We don’t wanna go home.”
Although the results have drastically changed for Elon, the approach has remained the same throughout the season.
“Nothing’s really changed from the beginning until now,” Ndugba said. “We’ve kept the same process. Even when we were on a losing streak, we kept the energy, the positivity, and that’s what’s helped us to put our best foot forward right now.”
Schrage added, “We’re not going to change as coaches to take you on these peaks and valleys as you win and you lose. We challenge our guys to be every-day guys and we can’t challenge them to be that if as a coach, you’re taking them on a rollercoaster of emotions. We’ve always believed in our guys and they’ve believed in what we’re doing, we just had to get in a rhythm.”
Even with the stakes much higher in the CAA tournament, Schrage has continued to model that kind of even-keeled temperament for his team.
“Every game is its own bracket, every game is its own championship game,” Schrage explained. “That’s how you have to approach March… we’re going to stay in the moment. It’s certainly a big moment for Elon, but at the same time, we’ve got to stay grounded and stay focused. That’s the only way we’re going to accomplish our goal. We’re not gonna change. We don’t have to make it bigger than it is. We’ve just got to say, ‘Hey, now it’s about continuing our momentum and just embrace it one possession at a time.’ It’s always about never getting too high and never getting too, especially this time of year. You’ve just got to embrace the next possession and make the most of it.”
Schrage, whose team made an unexpected two-victory run to the CAA semifinals as a seven seed last year, said his team “hit a wall” in its third game and learned from that this year.
As a result, Elon will now prepare to meet sixth-seeded Drexel on Tuesday night in a very unlikely title game that will produce the CAA’s ninth different conference tournament champion in 11 years, as Elon seeks its first NCAA tournament berth in program history and Drexel, its first since 1996.
“If you’re going to play four games in four days, this (the third game) is the pivotal one,” he said. “I think adrenaline kicks in tomorrow. There’s no time to be tired when you’re ultimately competing for a championship.”
As for Hofstra, it’s time to reflect on a very different kind of season and what might have been.
“It’s been a crazy year,” an emotional Farrelly said while thinking of Mihalich and fighting back tears. “Coach lived for this week and he was at his best. Playing in his honor, trying to do my best coaching his team. He’s the guy that made this a championship-level program, so to try to carry that on for him was important to me. I couldn’t pull the troops through tonight. I hope he’s proud.”
Praising Mihalich and Farrelly, Schrage graciously said, “There are a few programs that I really perceive to be the class of our league and Hofstra’s one of them.”
Farrelly continued, “I’ve been working my whole life to get an opportunity to run a program. These were certainly not the circumstances that I wanted to do it under. You work all year to get a shot at one night and unfortunately, we came up a night short.”