By Christian Heimall, Staff Writer
With just five games left to play in the regular season, the Hofstra Pride women's basketball team has a chance to reach a top four seed and get a crucial first-round bye in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament down in Harrisonburg, Virginia. That window of opportunity closed a tiny bit over the weekend after Hofstra dropped a 56-52 decision to Northeastern up in Boston. What made that loss sting even more was the upset UNC Wilmington pulled over previously top 25 ranked James Madison.
That loss by the Dukes would have put Hofstra in a three-way tie for fourth place in the CAA along with Delaware and James Madison. With five games to play, the Pride currently sit tied with the Towson Tigers at a record of 7-6, just one game out of the top four. The remaining schedule for Hofstra sets up like this:
George Mason-Feb. 18:
A home matinee contest with the Patriots is the sigh of relief Coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey and her squad need. While no team should be taken lightly (and none have been this season), Thursday's contest provides the opportunity to give senior center Jess Fuller a lot of rest to get her injured left ankle back to 100 perecent for the home stretch. Hofstra dominated George Mason last time around to the tune of a 72-39 romp. Look for the blue and gold to take out some frustration at home after a tough road loss to Northeastern.
At Drexel-Feb. 21:
This road game could be the real litmus test for the Pride. The Daskalakis Athletic Center is never an easy place to go play (just ask the men's squad), but Hofstra has proven they can compete and win away from the Mack. The Dragons however have one of the best players this conference has seen in Gabriella Marginean. It is obvious that Drexel is a team that never takes a moment off. They trailed by double-digits to the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the second half and ended up winning by eight. Hofstra had a lead at halftime last time these teams met in Hempstead but ultimately fell by ten. The game against George Mason is even more important for Hofstra with the Dragons looming just on the other side.
At Towson-Feb. 25:
Hofstra was not ready for the Tigers the last time they met and it showed as Towson held a double-digit lead from almost the tip. The Pride was able to make the final margin respectable thanks to junior guard Aamira Terry, but it was the final game in a four-game losing streak. This is another game where Hofstra's "never say die" attitude could help after a previous loss. Towson and Hofstra currently sit tied in the standings and depending on how the previous two games go for the Pride, this game could be a battle for sixth place in the conference.
After Sunday's loss you can rest assured that Hofstra highlighted this rematch on the schedule. Not to mention after two challenging, but potentially rewarding road games, the Pride will be most excited to see the friendly confines of the Lion's Den one more time. Guard Sam Brigham and center Jess Fuller, both seniors, will be playing in front of the home crowd one last time and the mentality of Brigham will not allow her home career to end on a sour note. However, Northeastern has a gritty squad with a lot of raw talent and nothing would please them more than sweeping the season series from Hofstra for the second straight year.
At Delaware-March 3:
Wining on the road is difficult. Winning in Newark, DE for Hofstra is close to impossible. Playing in Newark against the top rookie in the conference with a potential for the fourth seed (and last bye) in the CAA, is nerve-racking. Just over a month after freshman guard/forward Elena Delle Donne dropped 35 at the Mack to help the Hens to a 71-65 victory, the Pride go into the Bob Carpenter Center on the final day of the regular season to try and repeat what they did last year, win in Newark.
Last year was the first time Hofstra did that in program history and a majority of that team is still here. Now that they know how to win, it is not inconceivable to believe they could do it again. Kilburn-Steveskey said earlier in the year that she learned her lesson on how to game plan for Delle Donne and a change would be coming. It is always a fun rivalry to watch and this game may determine everything for these team's postseason chances.
Hofstra can, and most likely will, get help from other teams in the conference as they march towards the top four spots.
With Hofstra tied with the Tigers right now, finishing one game better than them in the final five games can make the difference between facing a struggling bottom feeder (like Georgia State or George Mason) or a rising team (like Northeastern or William and Mary) in the first round of the tournament. The Tigers schedule is not exactly favorable. Aside from playing Hofstra and UNCW, their other three contests are against top dogs Drexel and Old Dominion (both on the road) and Delaware at home.
Hofstra owns the tie-breaker over the Dukes thanks to a dramatic overtime win on the road, so how JMU finishes the season may be the deciding factor for Hofstra. In the next three games, Kenny Brooks leads his squad into a murder's row of sorts. First they play Delaware at home then they travel for a date with perennial powerhouse Old Dominion. Next, the Dukes come back home to take on a surging VCU team.
Believe the hype, Delle Donne is as good as advertised. However, Coach Tina Martin knows that teams win in the tournament. Delaware takes on James Madison this Thursday in Harrisonburg and that game may be the one that decides fourth and fifth place. After that game with the Dukes, Delaware faces three bottom half teams: William and Mary (4-9), Northeastern (5-8) and Towson (7-6). After that, the Blue Hens host Hofstra on the season's final day and that one could be for all the marbles.
My Final Prediction:
Hofstra has all the tools to make a serious run at the conference title this year. The question is whether or not the team's youthful mistakes will come out, or if the senior leadership and experience will move this team forward. What helps is the schedule of one of the teams in front of them, James Madison. In a best-case scenario for the Pride, they out while Delaware loses all their remaining games and JMU's only win is against the Hen's. That would put Hofstra at 12-6 and in fourth place. All Hofstra needs to do to get the fourth seed, is to finish the regular season two games better than Delaware and one game better than both Towson and JMU.
That is not to say that Hofstra cannot get a first round bye, but it would take a bit of work and help. If the Pride can win at Drexel on Sunday do not be surprised to see them run the table using that momentum. The combination of raw talent, senior leadership and a wise coaching staff can make it happen. Most likely, the Pride finish fifth, tied with the Dukes at 10-8 in conference, but gets the higher seed thanks to the tie-breaker over James Madison and take on George Mason in the first round of tournament.