The Pride officially sit atop the Colonial Athletic Association.
With a 72-63 victory over the College of Charleston Saturday afternoon, Hofstra earned their CAA regular season title and the program’s first conference title since the 2000-01 season, when they took the America East crown for the second consecutive year under then-head coach Jay Wright.
The Pride earned the chance to win the league Saturday thanks to a thrilling 70-69 road win over UNCW Thursday evening. The Seahawks won as well on Saturday, earning a share of the regular season title, but will be the second seed in the conference tournament in Baltimore.
The tiebreaker for the tournament’s top seed would have come down to an RPI advantage between Hofstra and UNCW had Drexel won over Northeastern, but the Huskies used a 15-0 second half run to erase a seven point halftime deficit and edge the Dragons 61-59.
Hofstra, who had been picked to win the league in the CAA preseason poll, displayed incredible consistency in one particular area: the starting lineup. The Pride rolled out the same starting five for every one of their 30 games this season, and time after time those five carried the team.
Once again, Juan’ya Green, Brian Bernardi, Rokas Gustys, Ameen Tanksley, and Denton Koon led Hofstra out of the gates. Gustys, who ends a breakout sophomore season averaging 13.6 ppg and 12.7 rpg, secured his seventh consecutive double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds against Charleston. All five starters finished in double figures for the eighth time this season.
As an added bonus, the victory avenges one of Hofstra’s four conference losses. The Pride fell at Charleston 72-61 earlier this year in just the third game of conference play.
Shortly before the final buzzer, head coach Joe Mihalich took the opportunity to take Green out of the game to receive an ovation from the crowd of 3,400. As the crowd roared in appreciation of Green’s efforts (which may earn him a CAA Player of the Year award), the pair shared a hug ripe with emotion.
“We’ve been through a lot these five years,” Green said of his relationship with Mihalich. “To see it getting to an end is emotional. Once my last game comes, I’m going to miss everything about it. Just coming to the office, talking to him, and being around the coaches. I’m going to miss everything about it.”
Green, along with Tanksley, had followed Mihalich from Niagara to Hofstra prior to the 2013-14 season. The trio won the MAAC regular season title in 2013 before being eliminated in the semifinal round by eventual champion Iona.
“We’re more mature,” Tanksley said when asked the biggest difference between that 2013 team and this year’s team. “There’s nothing we haven’t seen. I believe we have that will to win now, and with this team we have a lot of weapons.”
An emotional Mihalich got choked up on multiple occasions during the postgame press conference, for which the entire Pride roster was present, presumably setting a record for players in a press conference.
“Look at every guy back there: They’re champions,” Mihalich said, gesturing to his entire roster. “That’s why they’re here. That’s why we all came here. We came here to win a championship and we just won a regular season championship. Every single guy up there, when we recruit them, it’s what we talk about.”
At one point as Mihalich paused while speaking about the experience of coaching Green and Tanksley for five years, Green patted his coach on the shoulder, a simple gesture indicative of an elaborate relationship.
“These guys all think they learn from me, but the really good coaches learn from their players,” Mihalich said. “They taught me how to be a better person. Of course they make you a good coach. I’m a lucky guy just to be around all these guys. It’s why we do what we do, so I appreciate it.”
With the regular season title wrapped up, the Pride turn their attention toward winning the postseason championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the process, they seek to avenge a devastating double overtime loss to William & Mary in last year’s semifinals.
“We know every game is going to be hard-fought,” Mihalich said of the conference tournament. “We can’t wait to play, we’re excited. We had that little setback last year, and it’s going to make us better when we get down there. That loss to William & Mary down there in double overtime, that’s going to make us better when we get down to Baltimore.”
The postseason is more volatile than the long haul of a regular season, but Hofstra believes that past experience coupled with the confidence of being regular season champions can propel them to a postseason championship as well.
“We talk about being the best team in the league,” Mihalich said. “That’s what we are right now, but we’ve got to go prove it in the playoffs.”
To check out our full photo gallery from this game, click here
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.