Hofstra earned its fourth Colonial Athletic Association victory in dramatic fashion Saturday night as the Pride battled back from a ten-point deficit in the final minute to stun Drexel 79-77.
Freshman Eli Pemberton kicked off the rally with an off-balance 3-pointer with 57 seconds remaining, and senior Brian Bernardi followed up with his own triple 20 seconds later.
Following two missed free throws from the Dragons’ freshman point guard Kurk Lee, Deron Powers knocked down a pair from the Pride’s charity stripe to trim the deficit to two. As Drexel attempted to inbound, Lee was called for a deadball foul, his fifth of the game. The miscue set the stage for Hofstra’s latest star to shine.
Leading scorer Justin Wright-Foreman received the ensuing inbound in the right corner and promptly buried the go-ahead 3-pointer to the roar of nearly 3,000 in the Mack Sports Complex.
The sophomore notched 20 points for the night, his fifth such game in a row. After posting just 44 points in the entirety of his freshman campaign, Wright-Foreman paces the Pride with 15.9 ppg and has averaged a stellar 21.4 ppg in CAA play.
“Last year I was a role player, but now there’s just a lot of confidence,” Wright-Foreman said of his sophomore rise. “My coaches believe in me, my teammates believe in me, and they just prepared me to step into that role.”
Despite Wright-Foreman’s heroics, Drexel had an opportunity to salvage the game in the final moments. Freshman guard Kari Jonsson’s pulled up for a jumper with six seconds remaining, but the ball bounced off back iron and into the hands of Pemberton, who added the game’s final point at the free throw line.
On one final look, Rodney Williams’ three-quarter court heave at the buzzer sailed wide left. The improbable comeback was complete.
“It wasn’t a miracle, but it might have been close to that,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said after the game. “It’s almost hard to believe you can do something like that, and we did. There’s no way to win this game unless you do something special. That’s what these guys did. They pulled it out of their hat and it was because of their hard work, their belief they could do it, and I’m just proud of this team.”
It was payback of sorts for the Pride, who suffered an aggravating 81-80 overtime loss in Philadelphia nine days prior. In that contest, Hofstra had multiple opportunities to win at the buzzer, but could not coax a layup through the net.
“Crazy ending, and it certainly was the cruel side of a basketball game,” Drexel head coach Zach Spiker said after the final horn. “I thought we were the better team for a very big chunk of the game.”
In equal improbability to Saturday’s comeback is the rise of Wright-Foreman. Following the game, Mihalich recalled the end of last season, and the aftermath of the Pride’s heartbreaking loss to UNC-Wilmington in the CAA Championship game as a testament to the sophomore’s work ethic.
“Last year when our season ended, the game was over and the next day Justin was in the gym with Desure Buie,” Mihalich said. “They grabbed Speedy Claxton and the three of them were in the gym getting jump shots up. I couldn’t believe it. You figure you take a couple days off, but they were in the gym the next day shooting the ball and getting a workout in.”
Powers matched Wright-Foreman with 20 points to lead the Pride. It was the fourth 20-point effort of the season for the graduate point guard, who also had plenty of praise to heap on his sophomore teammate after the game.
“I always knew he was a great scorer last year,” Powers said of Wright-Foreman. “I knew he was just waiting for his opportunity. Once he got comfortable and got himself a lot of confidence, I knew he was going to step into the role easy. I was just waiting for that first game for him to feel comfortable and I knew he was going to be good after that.”
Pemberton, who left the first meeting against Drexel with an ankle injury after 15 minutes of action, added 16 points while Bernardi chipped in 10.
Hofstra’s back to back wins are their first since winning three in a row over Stony Brook, Siena, and Delaware to close out 2016. With the win, the team improves to 4-8 in league play, two games behind Northeastern for the final bye in the first round of the conference tournament.
The Pride will have an opportunity to make up that ground next weekend. They will travel north to take on the Huskies next Saturday after a Thursday contest at Towson.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.