By Sean WilliamsSports editor
The end of the men’s basketball season ended on a high note for the Pride, with an 82-71 win in front of a friendly home audience. The crowd chanted “Thank you seniors” at the end of the game, acknowledging soon-to-be graduates Stephen Nwaukoni, Dan Steinberg and Zeke Upshaw.
The game was a hard-fought one for Joe Mihalich’s squad, and the majority of the contest was a back and forth battle where neither team could gain a significant lead.
With Chris Jenkins sitting out again due to an injury, Hofstra’s shallow bench was even shorter than usual. When Jenkins is out, the team rotates essentially a seven-man squad compared to JMU’s much deeper roster.
But Hofstra’s shallow depth that plagued it all season didn’t seem to matter on Saturday night, as freshman Jamall Robinson scored a career-high 22 points with 39 minutes of court time, and graduate guard Zeke Upshaw put up 18 points and never left the court.
The game against the Dukes didn’t formally matter for the Pride — either way, Hofstra has to face UNC Wilmington in a play-in game this Friday in order to advance in the CAA tournament. However, the win did give Hofstra a much-needed confidence boost heading into postseason play. Offensive firepower has been a point of inconsistency for the 9-22 Pride for much of this season, but not over last weekend.
“Scoring has been our Achilles' heel … but now we’re getting some confidence scoring the basketball,” Mihalich said. “Some guys are stepping up — it’s more than just Zeke and Dion.”
One of the players who stepped up was Nwaukoni, who dominated under the basket for 13 rebounds and 9 points. His play frustrated JMU big man Taylor Bessick, who struggled with foul trouble all game.
“It’s my last home game, you know? Why not go all out?” Nwaukoni said. “We’re trying to take it all. We’re trying to win the championship. Go as far as we can, that’s the goal.”
The game on Saturday was most notable for how equal both teams looked for most of the contest. James Madison went into the half with a 41-39 lead after a Dukes buzzer-beating three-pointer capped off an offensive scoring flurry from both sides.
Many times this year Hofstra has gone into the half with a lead, only to lose it as the players’ exhaustion kicks in during the second half. This time, however, the Pride only looked better as the game went on, with sophomore forward Darren Payen turning back-to-back rebounds into points for Hofstra.
“We’re really happy to get this win. The battle cry going into today was, ‘Let's finish the season off the right way,’” Mihalich said.
The Pride’s defense was stifling in the second half, limiting JMU to a .25 field goal rate.
“It was more intangible than an ‘X and O’ thing, I thought we just played with a little more passion, a little more energy. Our heads were on a swivel … our transition defense was better as well,” Mihalich said.
With Dion Nesmith in early foul trouble, Robinson had to shoulder a lot of ball handling responsibility. His aggressive drives to the basket helped him go 8-11 at the free throw line. The freshman, five-time CAA Rookie of the Week, was all smiles after his performance.
“When I first got here I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to come in here, work as hard as I can, contribute to the team. So far it’s been great, it’s been a learning experience,” Robinson said.
For a team that was predicted to finish last in the conference, the Pride exceeded expectations — slightly — by finishing eighth out of nine teams. In a year that was clearly a rebuilding one for Hofstra, Mihalich’s optimistic, relentless attitude seemed to pay dividends among his players.
“I can’t even describe how good it’s been. I give credit to Coach and my teammates, because they’ve made this the best year of my life,” said Upshaw, the team’s leading scorer who came from an unremarkable undergraduate career at Illinois State to emerge as the face of this new Hofstra team.
The second half of Saturday’s game was a microcosm of Mihalich’s ideal world: solid rebounding, efficient scoring and tough defense, a performance that he hopes will carry into this upcoming weekend.
“We got a lot of contributions from a lot of people, and it was great that our seniors did something so special,” he said.
The Pride will travel down to Baltimore to compete in the CAA tournament this weekend.
The winner of the tournament not only wins the conference, but also receives an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament, possibly the biggest stage in college sports.
“We respect the heck out of everybody in this league,” Mihalich said. “[But] everybody is 0-0 now.”
If the Pride were to beat UNC Wilmington, they would go up against the University of Delaware Blue Hens, the top-ranked team in the conference.