Comeback effort falls short as Hofstra's historic season ends without CAA Tournament Title
In its third conference title appearance since joining the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) in 2001, Hofstra men's basketball fell to Northeastern University 82-74 on Tuesday, March 13, in North Charleston, South Carolina, continuing its championship drought in a season where it recorded a team record in wins with 27.
This was the first meeting between the Pride and Huskies in the CAA Tournament final in the fourth year in a row that the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds faced off against one another with an NCAA Tournament automatic bid at stake.
Over the past 17 years, the No. 1 seed has won 11 CAA tournament finals – the last loser being Hofstra by the hands of UNCW in 2016.
With another chance to punch itself a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, the Pride fell short yet again, this time, to the same team that ended their nation-leading 16-game win streak in February.
The Huskies, who were making their fourth tournament appearance in the last seven years, showed up on Tuesday night ready to play, posting their highest point total since starting the tournament.
Redshirt senior from Serbia, Vasa Pusica led the way with a team-high 21 points – all from beyond the arc – while forward Brace Bolden proved efficient inside, recording a near triple-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
Pusica could not be stopped on a night that saw the Pride come back from what seemed like an unsurmountable lead, converting on crucial shots down the stretch to place the Huskies back in position to kiss the trophy after the final buzzer sounded.
The Northeastern success from three-point territory late in the second half is what told the story of the game despite the sheer dominance the Huskies displayed down low against the Pride’s zone defense in the first half.
Hofstra exploded out of the half after playing one of the worst halves of basketball it had played all season where it shot 28 percent from the field while giving up a myriad of easy buckets down low that gave Northeastern the foothold of the momentum in the half.
“We didn’t play the first half,” said head coach Joe Mihalich.
“It sucks to say but Northeastern deserves the game. They played the right way for two halves. We only played the right way for one,” Hofstra guard Eli Pemberton added.
Northeastern ballooned various scoring runs into a 16-point halftime lead, a deficit the Pride seemed hard-pressed to overcome considering the poor shooting night and lack of offensive efficiency all around.
In the second half, however, the Pride came out with aggression, coming full force at Northeastern with an attitude that was nowhere to be found in the first half and getting out to a 12-2 run before a Huskies timeout.
Instead of settling for contested threes and bad looks, Hofstra took their offense inside, driving the ball to the rim possession after possession in what was an invigorating comeback for a team that showed no signs of life late in the first half.
“We just dug deep,” Pemberton said. “We knew we didn’t play well for the first 20 minutes. We just thought, ‘We’ve been here before. We’ve been down big before. Why can’t we just pull together as a team and work hard for each of the next 20 minutes and play how Hofstra basketball is supposed to be played.’”
Within just eight minutes of the second half, the Pride matched their first half points in the paint with eight, nearly doubled their first half second chance points with seven and converted the same amount of layups as it had in the first half with five. In total, the Pride got to the free-throw line 21 times in the second half compared to only four times in the first.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the way our team played in the second half,” Mihalich said. “We were down and out. We could’ve packed it in. [But] we tied it up at the 10-minute mark which was an incredible thing to do.”
With every drawn foul and second chance opportunity, the Pride snuck closer, eventually tying it up 54-54 with 9:13 left to play.
Justin Wright-Foreman improved on his 25 percent first half shooting, going to 60 percent in the last half and also knocking down 9-10 free throws while Pemberton added 11 hard-earned points including five from the charity stripe in the second half comeback effort.
Yet, when the comeback seemed eminent, Pusica and the Huskies got back within control of the game, taking advantage of miscommunications in the Pride’s zone defense to knock down three after three – a challenge Hofstra failed to respond to.
“It’s our better defense. It’s what we’re used to playing,” Mihalich said regarding sticking to zone defense throughout the game. “We had a better plan for what they would do against the zone than what they would do against man to man. They slice up a lot of teams so at the end of the day they made shots when they had to.”
As the final seconds ticked down, the late threes became too much to overcome for a Pride team who saw one of its best seasons in program history come to a close without a CAA Tournament trophy in its hands.
Hofstra saw another historic moment from Wright-Foreman whose 29 points moved him into second place on Hofstra's all time leaderboard for scoring, totaling 919 for his career. Pemberton finished with the second highest total for Hofstra with 15, also adding seven rebounds and three assists to his stat line. On the low block, Jacquil Taylor posted eight points for Hofstra while hauling in 15 rebounds – eight of them being offensive.
Yet when it needed it most, Hofstra’s bench did not show up as it was outscored by Northeastern’s bench unit 22-5 throughout the game. Jalen Ray had all five of the points for the Pride.
For Northeastern, five players scored in double figures to aid Pusica as Jordan Roland, Shawn Occeus and Tomas Murphy all scored 11 while Bolden contributed with his 10 for the Huskies.
Following the game, players from both teams received CAA All-Tournament honors. Wright-Foreman and Taylor were named to the conference all-tournament team for Hofstra, while Pusica was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
While the loss ends Hofstra’s CAA Tournament run without a championship to its name, the Pride will stay on the court for at least one more game as they enter the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) after claiming the CAA regular-season title just a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s an honor” Mihalich said. “You earn your way into the NIT, and we’ve earned our way into a really, really good tournament.”
Finding a way to the final of the NIT tournament would have Hofstra stay in their home state to play the championship game at the legendary Madison Square Garden.
“If you could ever get to the garden that would be an incredible experience for our guys and we’re going to do all we can to do that,” Mihalich said. “[We’ll] take it one game at a time to see if we can do something special because this is a special team. We’re going to lick our wounds and get our heads together and get ready to pay in a really special tournament.”
Though Hofstra’s season did not end how they wanted it to, it will get a chance to redeem itself in the near future.
Image Courtesy of Hofstra Athletics