Friday, February 5, 2016

Hofstra lets 20-point lead go by wayside in first-place showdown against UNCW

Juan'ya Green (left) and Rokas Gustys (right) were magnificent for Hofstra, but Pride could not sustain their brilliance, seeing 20-point lead evaporate against UNC Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

HEMPSTEAD, NY -- Hofstra had not seen a game of this magnitude in nearly a decade. Ironically, it came against the same team with whom they matched up Thursday night. Yet the Pride, who entered their home game against UNC Wilmington tied with the Seahawks for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association, found a way to control the proceedings for 30 minutes and protect their lead for another seven after that.

But college basketball games are 40 minutes long, and the same issues that plagued Hofstra at various points last season reared their collective ugly heads once more.

Leading by as many as 20 points late in the first half, and by double digits well into the second stanza, Hofstra (16-7, 8-3 CAA) saw their offense come to a screeching half after the intermission, making just four field goals as UNCW (17-5, 9-2 CAA) used a game-ending 29-12 run to score a come-from-behind 70-67 victory on a go-ahead three-pointer with 3.6 seconds remaining in regulation, silencing a raucous crowd at the Mack Sports Complex.

"It kind of stings," Joe Mihalich would begrudgingly admit after the Pride were stymied by a combination of timely shooting and the full court pressure defense UNCW head coach Kevin Keatts learned from his mentor, Rick Pitino, "but it was a heck of a game, two heavyweights going toe-to-toe. I thought for stretches, we had some of our best basketball, but there were some other stretches where we didn't play as well as we had to."

Hofstra fed off their supportive home crowd early and often, with the tandem of Juan'ya Green (21 points, 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season; he also recorded five assists and four blocked shots) and Rokas Gustys (9 points, but 21 rebounds) igniting a 27-9 run to start the game. The Pride would open their largest cushion of the night with 2:24 remaining before the intermission, at 38-18, but eight unanswered points by the visiting Seahawks pared the margin down to a much more manageable 12 points going into the locker room. As it turned out, it was a harbinger of things to come.

"I'm not sure we kept our composure the way we needed to down the stretch," Mihalich conceded. "We did it at Northeastern in that triple overtime game, we did it possession by possession the last few games; whether it was Elon, Drexel, but for whatever reason, we didn't do that tonight. We have to own that, we have to deal with that, and we're going to have to make sure it motivates us."

Going into a pivotal Virginia road trip against James Madison and William & Mary, Hofstra could have used a momentum-swinging victory on Thursday, but instead finds itself in the long too familiar role of chaser as the CAA season heats up. Below, we try to put this one in perspective as the Pride begin the process of dusting themselves off and gearing up for the next one:
  • Work it inside.
    Hofstra had no problem doing that in the first half, with Gustys setting an efficient pace for himself after collecting eight points and ten rebounds, but as the UNCW press combined with the physical nature of the second half, he became a non-factor after the intermission, taking just one shot from the floor and missing two of three at the free throw line. Fatigue may have been an issue for the sophomore as well, but with the state of affairs surrounding Hofstra's front line, there really is, unfortunately, not much Mihalich can do to help his big man. Andre Walker registered just four minutes spelling Gustys, and Ibrahim Djambo; the 6-10 transfer from Clemson who was expected to shore up the depth on the front line alongside Gustys and Denton Koon, has still not returned from his native Mali, where he went to handle personal off-court issues before the season started. There is still no update on Djambo's status, sadly, and tonight, Hofstra showed just how vital his services could have been.

    Regarding Gustys, Mihalich lamented not taking further advantage of his start to the game. "We probably should have got the ball to him more," he said in retrospect after the Lithuanian big man was held to one point in the final period. "The one time we tried to do it, he's drawing so much attention that they make it hard to get him the ball."

    On that note, UNCW's commanding 44-22 edge in points in the paint becomes magnified when you separate the Seahawks' 26-0 whitewash in the second half. The visitors were able to wear down the short Hofstra rotation to the point where guard C.J. Bryce attacked the lane at will, scoring 19 of his 24 points after halftime and giving UNCW the lead with his mid-range jumper at the 3:18 mark. "It could have been (fatigue)," said Green when searching for an explanation of UNCW's comeback. "We didn't make good plays and got a couple of turnovers. We definitely didn't get stops on the defensive end."

  • Should Hofstra have fouled in the final seconds?
    Jerry Beach, who has seen the highs and lows of Hofstra basketball through parts of three decades from his time at the Hofstra Chronicle to his current outlet, Defiantly Dutch, brought up a rather intriguing question in Mihalich's press conference. After Green drained a step-back three-pointer from the left corner to tie the game at 67 with 20 seconds remaining in regulation, Hofstra could have fouled UNCW on the possession that turned out to be Ingram's eventual game-winning triple. Considering the Pride had increasing difficulties stopping UNCW from getting in the lane down the stretch, and with the Seahawks only making eight of twelve at the charity stripe for the game, putting the visitors on the line for a one-and-one may have enabled Hofstra to escape with a win.

    Mihalich, however, dismissed the notion of openly giving UNCW a chance to take the lead for free, and made no excuses about his decision to play out his hand. "The kid made a heck of a shot," he said of Ingram. "We didn't let him use the ball screen and he took a pretty deep three. I thought Desure (Buie) did a pretty good job on him. They're going to get a shot off. They got a deep three off the bounce, and the kid knocked it down."

    "They made the plays down the stretch," Mihalich stated matter-of-factly. "Whether it was Ingram making the shot, a driving layup, or whatever, they made the plays down the stretch and we didn't."

  • Brian Bernardi's slump is starting to become concerning.
    Hofstra does not necessarily need Bernardi to set the box score on fire, as the Pride have more than enough offensive weapons in Green, Gustys, and Ameen Tanksley to display their firepower. But when Bernardi is firing on all cylinders, it adds a facet to Hofstra's game that positions them head and shoulders above the rest of the CAA in terms of the multi-pronged attack Mihalich can send out. The Staten Islander has had a rough go of it lately, shooting just 26 percent (23-for-88) from the floor in his last eight games. Furthermore, following a string of 11 double-figure efforts in 13 games, Bernardi was held under 10 points for the fifth consecutive contest, managing only nine markers on Thursday while going 3-for-12. Against James Madison and William & Mary, Hofstra's next two opponents, he was a mere 5-for-27 earlier in the season. The Pride are no doubt hopeful that the sharpshooter will soon turn into a slump buster as the road to Baltimore continues to twist and turn in the coming weeks.

  • A tale of two halves.
    In this case, it was the same half, but on two separate ends. After the intermission, Hofstra made just four of their 22 field goal attempts, while the defense, an Achilles' heel of sorts for the Pride in second halves throughout the year, surrendered a 56 percent (18-for-32) clip to UNCW in the final 20 minutes. "You do have to give them credit," Mihalich said of Hofstra's opponent. "They're a good defensive team and they take you out of a rhythm. I'll say it again, I thought we got some good looks. I thought Brian had some good looks, I thought we had a couple go in and out. Right in front of us, Ameen took a shot that was halfway down and came out, Juan'ya had a couple of good looks that just didn't quite go. They take you out of your rhythm and they make you work."

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