HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — An emotional day was headed toward a disappointing ending at the Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Saturday until the Hofstra Pride turned despondency into a jubilant celebration by following the mantra of the Pride’s former head coach.
Like the word spelled out by the initials in Joseph Anthony Mihalich’s name, Hofstra was in a JAM.
Trailing the Northeastern Huskies by as many as 11 points three different times in the final ten minutes and by eight points with time running out, Hofstra scored the final 11 points over last 1:12 to salvage Joe Mihalich Day with an improbable 76-73 Colonial Athletic Association victory.
It was the second comeback of its kind in the past six seasons for Hofstra, which scored the last 12 points over the final 57 seconds to beat Drexel by two points on the same floor on Feb. 4, 2017.
That older rally was started by Eli Pemberton, one of several ex-Hofstra stars in attendance to honor Mihalich, who led the Pride to its only CAA tournament title in the final game Mihalich coached before he suffered a stroke five months later and subsequently stepped down as Hofstra’s head coach.
Fittingly, that championship game was likewise against Northeastern. Even more apt was how Saturday’s game-ending run concluded, with graduate transfer guard Zach Cooks (12 points) making the last field goal attempt of the game — to put Hofstra ahead for good — on a nifty, left-handed scoop layup with 8.6 seconds left before junior guard and leading CAA Player of the Year candidate, junior transfer guard Aaron Estrada (team-highs of 21 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists) closed the scoring with a pair of free throws in the final second.
And perhaps most suitable of all was the Pride finding a way to win out of the depths of despair, since Mihalich took over the program right after it had the worst season in its history, going a dismal 7-25 in 2012-13, before the Pride won 20 games two years later under Mihalich. That was the first Hofstra’s four 20-win seasons, to go along with three regular-season CAA titles, and three CAA tournament championship game trips guided by Mihalich.
True to what Mihalich used to advise during Hofstra practices — to “end on a make” — Cooks’ last shot left some good feelings for the third-place Pride (19-9, 11-4 CAA), which implausibly stole a game in which it was outplayed by the last-place Huskies (7-19, 1-14), who lost to Hofstra by 22 points, in Boston, exactly four weeks earlier.
In case they needed a reminder of Mihalich’s catch-phrase, the Pride’s players and coaching staff wore t-shirts that were cleverly, amusingly, and touchingly modeled after the iconic camel hair blazer (along with replica drawings of a white dress shirt, and blue tie) that Mihalich often wore as Hofstra’s head coach, with the words “END ON A MAKE,” in Hofstra blue, on the back.
First-year head coach, Craig “Speedy” Claxton, who served as a Hofstra assistant coach for eight years (the first seven, under Mihalich), didn’t apologize for needing a near-miracle to beat Northeastern, which has several close losses as part of its dreadful conference record.
“Good teams, they find ways to win, and that’s what happened today,” Claxton said. Speaking of the Huskies, Claxton continued, “They’re much better than their record and I told my guys, ‘This is trap game.’ Northeastern is well-coached and they have good players.”
The win extended Hofstra’s season-best winning streak to six straight victories as the Pride, with three home games left to close the regular season, hopes to enter next month’s CAA tournament as the conference’s hottest team with potentially nine consecutive wins.
Keeping that run alive was an additional apropos way to honor Mihalich, who guided Hofstra to program records of 16 straight wins and 27 overall victories three seasons ago. Interestingly, the 16-game streak ended at Northeastern before the Huskies later ended the Pride’s dream of reaching the NCAA tournament in the CAA championship game that year.
Despite its underachieving season this year, Northeastern (picked second in the CAA during the preseason) had designs on spoiling Hofstra’s day again, behind its three-headed attack of redshirt, transfer junior forward Chris Doherty (career-best 22 points — 15 in the second half — and nine rebounds), sophomore guard Jahmyl Telfort (season-high 22 points), and redshirt senior freshman Jason Strong (17 points, 5-for-8 from 3-point range).
After missing their first four shots and falling behind 7-2, the Huskies made seven of their next 11 shots during a 21-9 surge to lead, 23-16, with just over nine minutes left in the opening half.
Hofstra scored 13 of the next 15 points (seven by Estrada), to move ahead, 29-25, but Northeastern scored the last seven points of the half — five straight by Doherty before a Telfort putback — to lead, 32-29, at halftime, as the Pride narrowly missed a potential oddity of leading 31-30, at intermission, for a third straight home game.
As Hofstra talked things over in its newly-named Joe Mihalich locker room, Mihalich (now a special advisor to Hofstra athletic director Rick Cole Jr.) sat on the court next to his wife Mary, school president Susan Poser, and Cole, watching a video tribute to Mihalich’s head coaching career, which at Niagara and Hofstra, amassed a record of 406-295 (.579) — including 141-92 (.605) with the Pride — and many lives touched over 22 seasons (the last seven, at Hofstra).
Mihalich couldn’t have liked what he saw shortly thereafter, as Northeastern outworked Hofstra during a 14-2 run to turn a two-point deficit into a 54-43 lead. The Huskies maintained that margin twice more, the last time, at 58-47, after two free throws by Doherty with 8:17 remaining.
With the Pride trailing, 63-53, a 3-pointer by Cooks started a 9-3 spurt that brought Hofstra within 65-62 with 4:15 to go, but an 8-3 answer — on treys from Telfort and Strong, with a Doherty second-chance layup in between — pushed Northeastern’s lead to a seemingly insurmountable 73-65 advantage with 1:31 remaining.
That’s when the Pride finally started playing less like the Huskies had done for most of the season and more like the team that is expected to be one of the top contenders to capture the CAA’s automatic NCAA tournament berth, like Mihalich’s team did two years ago, two days before the Covid pandemic permanently canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament.
A driving layup by Cooks, a 3-pointer by graduate guard Jalen Ray (12 points), and a driving layup by Estrada after Cooks forced a backcourt turnover, suddenly trimmed the Huskies’ lead to 73-72 with 23.7 seconds to go.
“That was a huge turning point,” Claxton said of Cooks’ defensive play. “We were preaching to go for the steal first, then, ‘If you don’t get the steal, to foul,’ and Zach, with his quick hands, he went for the steal and got it.”
With the Lion’s Den student section doing its best to cause a distraction behind the basket, Doherty, who made six of his first seven free throws in the game, missed his next one — the front end of a one-and-one — opening the door for the Pride.
Transfer sophomore guard Darlinstone Dubar (13 points) grabbed the rebound and handed the ball to Estrada, who found Cooks in the right corner at the other end of the floor. Cooks drove along the right baseline and deftly navigated around Doherty to do as Mihalich always suggested — end on a make.
Northeastern had one last chance to win, but transfer redshirt guard Shaquille Walters was stripped in the lane by transfer graduate forward Jarrod Simmons with 3.5 seconds left. Estrada ran the loose ball down in the left corner and was fouled by Strong before he too, ended on makes — two free throws — with :00.8 left.
A desperation midcourt heave by the Huskies missed and wouldn’t have counted anyway as it came just after the final buzzer.
On what proved to be the game-winning shot by Cooks, Claxton laughed, “It was just like I drew it up. I told them, ‘Go get the ball to Zach,’ and ‘Zach, go make a play,’ and that’s exactly what he did. He made me look like a good coach.”
Cooks added, “They put the ball in my hands. I saw the lane open and just [thought], go make a play.”
Before Cooks could continue, Claxton interrupted him with some praise. “He’s a big-time player,” Claxton said. “When the moment’s bright, that’s when he’s going to shine. And the moment was bright tonight, and he came through. I knew he was going to make it.”
On a team with Estrada, Cooks, Ray, and others who are all capable of stepping up in big moments, Cooks acknowledged, “It could be anybody, any night.”
Claxton noted how dangerous that can make the Pride’s offense. “It’s everything because that means the defense can’t load up and key in on one guy because a number of guys on this team can beat you,” he said. “We have confidence in all of them.”
Hofstra’s versatility in its offensive approach can also be difficult for opposing defenses to stop. The Pride missed 19 of its first 22 shots from 3-point range on Saturday, but scored more than half of its points in the paint, outscoring the Huskies, 40-30, in the paint and doubling Northeastern’s scoring on layups, 36-18.
“We need paint points,” Claxton said. “Those are easier shots than 3s. Even though we’ve got some really good 3-point shooters, you always want to get the easiest shot, and they (the Huskies) were really on our 3-point shooters today, so we were just driving the basketball and getting scores.”
Yet when Hofstra needed to convert from 3-point range most, the Pride didn’t miss. Trailing 60-50, Hofstra made its final five shots from behind the arc, starting with a Cooks 3-pointer with 6:28 left.
But Claxton said it was Hofstra’s defense that made the biggest difference.
“When it mattered most, we got the stops [we needed to get] and our offense took care of itself,” Claxton said.
As did switching to a zone defense and applying some late, full-court pressure.
“It won us the game,” Claxton said. “Our man-to-man defense wasn’t there. Their bigger guards were posting up our [smaller] guards and they were having success, so we just wanted to go to zone because we need our little guys on the offensive end.”
For a team with a new head coach and new, key transfer players (like Estrada, Cooks, and Dubar), Claxton believed it was just a matter of time before Hofstra would learn how to win several close games as it has after dropping a few narrow victories early in the season.
“It’s just chemistry,” Claxton explained. “We were new to each other. I’m a rookie head coach. To these kids’ credit, they believe in the coaching staff and we’re finishing out games as the season goes along.”
Staying poised and composed while facing adversity has also helped the Pride in close, late-game situations this season.
“We just want to stay level-headed and stay positive, even when we’re down however many points, we just want to keep on [going] and make sure we come out with a win,“ Cooks said.
Not that there wasn’t some doubt creeping in as Northeastern made some difficult shots in the second half.
Cooks added, “We thought it was going to be one of those games where we make a run and they hit some lucky shots at the end and win the game, but we stuck with it, stayed positive, and came out with the win.”
Claxton said, “We knew we were down ten [and eleven], but there was plenty of time left, and we just wanted to chip away, chip away, chip away, and that’s what we did.”
Beating the Huskies that way could also pay dividends in the CAA tournament.
“This is going to help us because we got down pretty big and we held strong and we believed, and we just fought,” Claxton said. “So, we know that we’re capable of coming back from a big deficit.”
However, for now, it was big just to get a tribute victory while keeping Hofstra’s winning streak alive.
“It’s a special day,” Claxton said. “We’re celebrating Coach and we definitely wanted to win for him. It’s a special night. We’re going to go celebrate with him. He’s a legend here.”
High praise (though deserved) coming from the Pride’s current head coach, who more than two decades ago, was himself, one of the biggest legends Hofstra’s program ever had, when Claxton was a star guard for the then-Flying Dutchmen and led Hofstra to its first NCAA tournament in 23 years en route to becoming a first-round NBA draft pick.
If Claxton hopes to eventually be revered in a similar way as a Hofstra head coach, following Mihalich’s lead would be a good way to achieve that. Just how Claxton’s team followed Mihalich’s mantra.