The Hofstra Pride endured an emotional season in 2016-17, marked by the highs and lows that define this sport. They suffered devastating defeats and capped off historic comebacks, but heading into this weekend’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Charleston, SC, they are playing as well as anyone in the league.
The Pride (15-16, 7-11 CAA) closed the season with wins in three of their final five games, including road victories over Northeastern, William & Mary, and James Madison. The win over the Tribe was the first for a visiting club at Kaplan Arena since Drexel earned a victory there in the final home game of the 2015-16 season.
“Hard to win at those places,” head coach Joe Mihalich said of the season’s final road trip. “William & Mary hadn’t lost there all year. To get them on their home court, not many people do it. We were the only ones to do it, so we’re proud of that.”
However, the late season push was not enough to dig Hofstra out of its early 2-8 hole in league play, and thus the Pride missed out on a first-round bye. They enter the weekend as the tournament’s #8 seed, where they will take on #9 seed Delaware Friday night at 6:00 p.m.
“We said all year long that you want to feel good about yourself at the end of February,” Mihalich said. “You want to go into Charleston thinking you have a chance to win, and to do that you have to be playing good. I think we checked every box this past weekend, because we’re feeling good about ourselves. We’re playing very well, and we truly believe that we can go down to Charleston and win that tournament.”
Sophomore Justin Wright-Foreman leads the Pride and ranks third in the CAA with 18.0 ppg after averaging just 1.6 per contest in limited minutes last season. The Queens native truly came into his own midway through the year, and closed the season with a streak of ten 20+ point performances before tallying 19 in the season finale, where he shot just 8-23 from the field and 1-10 from 3-point range.
“That’s the mark of a great player,” Mihalich said of Wright-Foreman. “When you don’t play well and still have 19 points. A great scorer, anyway, when you don’t play well and still get 19 points.”
Also rounding into form just in time for the stretch run is junior forward Rokas Gustys. The Lithuanian native enjoyed a stellar sophomore campaign last season where he averaged a double-double on 13.5 points and 13.0 rebounds per game, but struggled at points this year and ended the season at 9.2 ppg and 12.2 rpg. Gustys even missed four league games with a lower body injury, but returned in time for the Pride’s late-season push.
Over the Pride’s final five games, Gustys averaged a stellar 11.0 ppg and 13.0 rpg, tallying double-digit rebounds in each contest. His season-ending 12.2 rpg average ranks fourth in the nation and just 0.8 rpg shy of Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado in the category’s top spot.
“Rokas is back, it’s as simple as that,” Mihalich declared this week. “That’s great for us, and maybe not good for who we’re playing against. He had a lot of health issues this season and wasn’t clicking the way he wanted to early on, but he’s back. I think he’s the best defensive player in the league.”
In order to capture the CAA title which narrowly avoided their grasp last season, the Pride must win four games in four days. If they are able to get past Delaware on Friday, Hofstra will take on top-seeded UNC-Wilmington Saturday in what would be a rematch of last year’s championship game which the Seahawks won 80-73 in overtime.
“Sure, it’s tougher,” Mihalich said of winning four games instead of three. “But I’ve seen it happen. Unfortunately one of the years where I used to coach, we went to the finals and lost to a team that had to play four games. It happens. It’s all about getting a little bit of momentum, feeling good about yourselves, and taking it one game at a time.”
Also key to Hofstra’s ability to make noise down South will be the contributions of their backcourt supporting cast. Deron Powers (12.9), Eli Pemberton, (12.8) and Brian Bernardi (12.1) all average over 12 points per game. Powers doubles as the Pride’s leading assist man with 5.3 per game, and the freshman Pemberton is the team’s leading deep threat at 41%.
The Pride earned a season sweep of Delaware, but won the first meeting in the opening game of league play by just two points. Hofstra earned a more comfortable victory in the second meeting, with a 73-65 decision on their home court at the Mack Sports Complex. Wright-Foreman averaged 18.5 ppg over the two contests.
“Some people are going to say it’s tough to beat a team three times, other people will say ‘well if you can beat them twice, you can beat them three times,’” Mihalich said of facing Delaware. “All we know is we’ve got to play good basketball. It’s going to be a tough ballgame, we know that. Great respect for that team and how they play. We had two good games against them and we know we’re going to have to play really well to win that game.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.