By Kyle Kandetzki - ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR
Though fans and writers have said that the Pride is supposed to be a contender this year, talk means nothing. When the entirely new product hit the floor Friday night, they proved that they could back up all of the expectations.
The Hofstra men’s basketball team opened the 2014-15 campaign against the Atlantic Sun Conference’s Jacksonville University Dolphins. It was anything but a close affair at the Mack Sports Complex, as the Pride jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, winning 94-61.
“It seemed like 18 months, or 18 years for some of these guys,” said head coach Joe Mihalich, who is in his second year with the team. “But as you could see these guys couldn’t wait to get back out on the floor.”
If fans came into this season without hearing a thing about the team since last March, they would be stunned to look at Friday’s starting lineup. Four of the five players were playing their first game in a Pride uniform. The only returning player was Moussa Kone at center.
To add to the theme of unfamiliar players on the court, Kone left the game after only five minutes due to an apparent knee injury. He was replaced by even more new faces: freshmen Andre Walker and Rokas Gustys.
The remainder of the starting lineup made an immediate impact, most notably Brian Bernardi. Bernardi came over from a Larry Brown coached Southern Methodist University team, and placed himself in a position to be the Pride’s go-to shooter from beyond the arc.
Bernardi broke up the only tie of the game with a three-pointer, then a few plays later hit another and a few minutes later one more. Before the end of the half he was perfect from the floor, including four-for-four from deep. Bernardi would lead the offense with 22 points on 80 percent shooting.
“I go into every game thinking I’m going to make every shot,” said Bernardi, the Staten Island native. “So once the first one goes in, I feel like I’m not going to miss after that.”
Two of the other starting transfers don’t look anything like relatives, but coach Mihalich said they’re “like twins out there,” citing their ability to communicate with each other. Those two are Philadelphia natives and Niagara transfers Ameen Tanksley and Juan’ya Green, respectively.
Green, statistically, was expected by many to be the team’s top offensive weapon after averaging 16.5 points at Niagara. It appeared that might be the case at Hofstra as he added to the Pride’s early three-point barrage with one of his own, but that was his only field goal of the half.
That is not to say that Green didn’t have a part in Hofstra’s success, as he contributed otherwise. Green drew fouls, leading to seven made free throws and dished the ball inside, giving him nine assists on the night. Green’s performance landed him just one assist short of a double-double.
Tanksley seemed to fall under the radar somehow thanks to Bernardi’s breakout performance, but was anything but forgettable. He chose his shots carefully, scoring 16 points with a 64 percent shooting percentage, and adding a three-pointer to the total of nine that Hofstra had for the game.
Guard Nichols was also new, and may not have carried the hype that Tanksley, Green and Bernardi had, but he added 15 points on 75 percent shooting, including himself in the group of five players who ended the game in double figures.
The Pride didn’t let the Dolphins – whom lost their top six scorers from the previous season – anywhere close to competing at any point. Hofstra was up by 10 within four minutes, and up by 20 within 15 minutes.
“We had a couple of San Antonio Spur-like possessions where we moved the ball a lot and it’s fun to coach and it’s fun to watch,” said Mihalich, likening his squad to the defending NBA champions.
The Dolphins shot a dismal 33 percent from the floor on the night, had the ball stolen from them seven times, and were blocked 10 times. Six of those blocks came from newcomer Andre Walker.
The 6-foot-11 center from Maryland got to play 21 minutes in his first collegiate game, and proved to be defensively dominating, adding 11 rebounds to his block party. Walker also added himself to the highlight reel when he threw down a standing dunk over a Jacksonville defender in the first half.
A wide margin in the second half allowed coach Mihalich to utilize something he couldn’t last season due to his shorthanded roster: rotations.
“Nobody has to be ‘the’ guy on this team anymore,” said Mihalich, citing the need for a leading performer last season. “It’s a bunch of guys who share the game and play hard together.”
A comfortable lead wouldn’t stop the flow of points in the second half, adding 41 more to the 53 they had in the first. The late efforts were punctuated by a dunk by Malik Nichols on a dish from Dion Nesmith. The Pride would efficiently run the clock, though the rowdy crowd shouted “We want 100,” and brought the game to a 94-61 final.
An exciting performance and a loud student section had coach Mihalich excited for the remainder of the season at the Mack, already looking forward to Friday against Stony Brook.
“What I’m pleased about is that anyone that came out tonight will want to come back again,” said Mihalich.
Before Hofstra returns home, they had to travel down south for one of their biggest tests of the season.
The Pride journeyed to Raleigh, N.C. to play one of their toughest opponents of the season, North Carolina State. The Wolfpack play in one of the marquee conferences in college basketball, the Atlantic Coastal Conference, along with schools like Duke and Virginia.
NC State jumped out early to a 7-0 lead and never looked back from there. The first half was plagued by Hofstra leaving Wolfpack shooters open from behind the arc, and giving them easy shots.
The three-point shot that was so useful for Hofstra on Friday hurt them in Raleigh as they were one-for-seven early on.
At Hofstra’s offensive peak in the first half, the Pride hit back-to-back threes to come within 10, but the team simply didn’t get back on defense to stop the counter attack.
Hofstra suffered two technical fouls within a one-minute period, at the start of the second half, including one called on coach Mihalich for complaining about the game’s officiating. Following a long round of free throws, the Wolfpack were back up by 19.
The Pride had one last attempt at a comeback, when the three-point shot finally was in their favor. Green pulled off an impressive streak of threes that put Hofstra within single digits for the first time since the beginning of the game. With 12 minutes left, it was 55-46 for NC State.
That would be the closest Hofstra would get, as errors and missed inside shots did the Pride in. One notably poor possession involved the team getting four second-chance shots under the hoop, but missing every single one of them.
The Wolfpack pulled away off of Pride turnovers and poor shot choice, and made the margin unreachable in the final five minutes. Hofstra put in a last-gasp effort after the game was unattainable, leading the final score to be 76-64 in favor of NC State.
Juan’ya Green led the team with 19 points, while Dion Nesmith followed with 13. Rokas Gustys got his first start and only went one-for-five shooting, but would pull down 12 boards. Malik Nichols and Brian Bernardi didn’t follow up their opening night performances well, as they shot 1-for-11 between the both of them.
Though the Pride struggled at times, they showed that when they are playing well, they can battle with great teams. The mistakes on open shots, and mental mistakes on ball control are not good, but are very fixable going forward. Through a 12-point loss, Hofstra still proved that they won’t go down easy, even against an ACC opponent.
The Pride will return to the Mack Sports Complex this Friday to try to go back over .500 against rival Stony Brook University.
The teams have not faced each other in five years, though the matchup used to be a staple on each squad’s schedule.