In a rematch of last year’s CAA semifinal that went to double overtime, No. 1 seed Hofstra avenged that defeat by beating No. 5 William & Mary 70-67 Sunday afternoon on NBCSN.
Joe Mihalich’s Pride took the lead for good on a Denton Koon layup with 8.9 seconds remaining, and an Ameen Tanksley free throw with 1.9 seconds remaining provided the final margin. The Tribe had one final possession, but their inbounds pass was mishandled and time expired.
Tanksley led four Hofstra players in double figures with 23 points and CAA Player of the Year Juan’ya Green added 14 and five assists. Greg Malinowski led the way offensively for the Tribe with 22 points, as he shot 5-for-8 from three and 7-for-10 from the field overall.
Hofstra will play No. 2 UNCW, with whom they shared the CAA regular season title, in Monday’s title game.
VIDEO: Gustys, Hofstra hold off Northeastern at home
With first-place UNCW winning Saturday, Hofstra needed a win Sunday against Northeastern to remain a game back ahead of their meeting in Wilmington Thursday night. The Huskies mounted a rally in the second half but it wasn’t enough to overtake Hofstra, which won by the final score of 65-60 on NBC Sports Network.
Denton Koon scored 19 points and Rokas Gustys added 17 points and 16 rebounds, tallying his 17th double-double of the season. Guards Juan’ya Green (13 points, eight assists and seven rebounds) and Ameen Tanksley (12 points) also scored in double figures, with that quartet accounting for 61 of the Pride’s 65 points.
David Walker and Quincy Ford, both of whom had their struggles at times on the offensive end Sunday, scored 15 points apiece for Northeastern.
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) Joe Mihalich didn’t show up on Hofstra’s campus three years ago riding a white horse. He did arrive and turn around a basketball program saddled with off-the-court issues that left the roster depleted and the image in tatters.
The Pride finished 7-25 in 2012-13 and four players were arrested on burglary charges stemming from dormitory room break-ins.
This season, the attitude is as far as it can get from that year. The Pride are picked as the preseason favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Conference.
Mihalich gives the credit to his staff and the players. He didn’t know if the third season would be the one that saw such expectations.
“I don’t know if you ever put a number on it but I knew we could turn it around because this is a great place with great leadership,” Mihalich said Thursday at the team’s media day. “Everything was in place to turn it around and I wouldn’t have come (from Niagara) if it wasn’t. I believe Hofstra can be a special place for basketball.”
The optimism for this season comes from the three leading scorers returning off a team that went 20-14 and played in the CBI. All three, however, are guards, giving the Pride one of the better backcourts in the nation.
“It’s humbling,” senior guard Juan’ya Green said of the attention the backcourt has received. “It just tells us how hard we worked and we pushed each other to be the best we could.”
Green is the point guard. He averaged 6.5 assists last season and will again be the director of the offense.
“My teammates trust me and Coach Mihalich trusts me and he knows I’ll pick out the right play at the right time,” Green said.
The 3-point specialist is junior Brian Bernardi, who made 95 3-pointers last season, shooting 40.4 percent from beyond the arc.
“My whole life I’ve always been able to shoot the 3,” he said, standing just behind the 3-point line for an interview. “I practice and prepare and I shoot every day. I made four 3s at the Nets’ arena when I was in sixth grade so I knew I was supposed to be a shooter.”
The third member of the backcourt is 6-foot-5 senior Ameen Tanksley, the team’s true swingman who helps with the rebounding. He averaged 16.2 points and 5.5 rebounds last season while making 74 3s.
“There’s no pressure for one player to be the big scorer,” Bernardi said. “We share the ball and that makes it hard for our opponent.”
Mihalich knows everyone points to his backcourt and that could cause problems if the Pride were to face a team with size up front.
“One of our challenges is to figure out a way to defend really big frontcourts but they have to defend us too,” Mihalich said. “That’s the great cat and mouse game of basketball. We’re small and quick. You’re big and strong let’s see who wins.”
The Hofstra players all break into big smiles when this season’s schedule is brought up. There is a trip to the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam in November and a game against Appalachian State on Dec. 6, at Madison Square Garden. It will be the Pride’s first appearance at the Garden in six years.
“It’s been one of my dreams to play in Madison Square Garden,” Bernardi said. “And the Virgin Islands, that’s just great.”
Mihalich is looking at a different part of the schedule – the CAA Tournament with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.
If you want to know which way the wind blows in the Colonial Athletic Association these days, open your ears. The league that rode Virginia-based schools like George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion to attention-grabbing Big Dance victories sounds very different these days.
For starters, Northeastern University pahked their cah in the yahd by winning 14 league games and claiming the regular-season crown. Right behind them at 13-5 was Maryland-based Towson, led by Massachusetts native Pat Skerry, who took a league doormat and turned it into a winner in one season. New guy Joe Mihalich hopes to work similar magic in his debut season at Hofstra, a pronouncement he delivers in the hard-bitten tones of a big city police detective.
“When I got here, there were four players on the team,” Mihalich told NBC Sports via phone. “That was the bad news and the good news. I had to go out and get eight guys all at once, but I was able to get my guys. The kind of guys you need to get this thing turned around.”
It’s common to hear a coach make upbeat noises when he takes over a moribund program, but that kind of confidence seems strangely warranted in the new CAA. Pat Skerry’s Towson team was built along similar lines, taking on players various and sundry in an attempt to improve on 2012’s 1-31 mark. Clearly, five wins would have counted as progress. Skerry’s team went out and won 18, despite the fact that APR missteps from the prior administration had his program on a postseason ban.
“It took a while, but they did a good job of buying in,” Skerry said, also via phone. “We didn’t talk about the ban, just about trying to get better each day. Maybe it wasn’t fair, but they handled it. Pride was the key piece.”
The Tigers are entering this season with much higher expectations, hoping to ride reigning CAA Player of the Year Jerelle Benimon to an NCAA berth. Skerry has surrounded his breakout star – a Georgetown transfer – with several complementary pieces.
“Jerome (Hairston) was on the All-Rookie team last year and he’s a lead guard who can score the ball,” Skerry said. “Timajh Parker will step right in for us this year, and our transfer from Vermont, Four McGlynn, is still a sophomore and he’s a very good shooter.”
In addition to the dramatic uptick in talent and team cohesion, Skerry is excited about the possibilities presented by SECU arena, the new $72 million home base for Tiger basketball. His team’s bright future was built brick-by-brick, quite literally.
To add a cherry on the sundae, the CAA tournament, long anchored in the Richmond Coliseum, has migrated to Baltimore this season. With Virginia-based founding members George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU realigned out of the conference, the shift makes some geographical sense.
Skerry acknowledges that the northern contingent: Towson, Delaware, Drexel and Northeastern in particular, stand to benefit from the changes. But he scoffs at the notion that the power will easily shift his direction.
“We added Charleston as well, and they beat our brains in last year,” Skerry said. “Elon’s going to be very good (in 2014), and James Madison are the reigning champs. We’ve got our hands full.”
Winning the league is, honestly, considered little more than a first step in the CAA, thanks to a rich history of giant-killing in the NCAA tournament.
“We had our coaches meeting a few months back and one of the other coaches said ‘Hey, we’ve seen teams come out of this conference and be incredibly successful, get to the Final Four,'” said Hofstra’s Mihalich. “‘Who’s going to be the next VCU or George Mason?’ I do believe that somebody can do that.”
It may not be Mihalich this year, though he made strong moves to stabilize the Pride’s roster in both the short and long term. Hofstra added graduate students Dion Nesmith (formerly at Monmouth) and Zeke Upshaw (Illinois State) to serve as one-year elder statesmen, signed three skilled freshmen and let his four holdovers show them the ropes. Another layer of known quantities will debut next season, when Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley – who followed Mihalich from his last posting at Niagara – and former SMU guard Brian Bernardi are eligible to suit up.
Neither coach thinks it will be easy to seize a title in a league that hasn’t seen an auto-bid issued from north of the Mason-Dixon line since before the turn of the millennium.
“As John Chaney used to say, for us to win this year, we need the two women in our lives to be there for us,” Mihalich joked. “Mother Nature and Lady Luck. We’ve got to hope a lot of things break our way.”
Skerry, in a decidedly better place than last year, concurred.
“Make no mistake about it, winning is really hard,” the Massachusetts native said with a chuckle. “I think Doc Rivers said that.”
That being said…
“We’ve got a chance to be good. We’re not hiding from that.”