Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hofstra survives late comeback to narrowly escape Columbia

Brian Bernardi's 21 points led five Hofstra players in double figures as Pride, who saw 12-point lead erased in final minutes, came back to defeat Columbia. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

NEW YORK -- Forgive Joe Mihalich if he feels like he coached two games in one night.

After all, Hofstra's head coach saw his team's 12-point lead evaporate in four minutes after maintaining a comfortable balance through most of the night against local rival Columbia, only to have to wrest the outcome of the contest away over the final 120 seconds in a furious exchange between both programs.

"I felt like we won the game twice," Mihalich assessed as the Pride survived Columbia's 17-4 run down the stretch to emerge from Levien Gymnasium with a skin-of-the-teeth 88-86 win over the Lions. "We had the good lead and played really well. We had a lot of guys help us, but to their credit, they just wouldn't go away."

Hofstra (5-3) saw five players amass double-figure point totals, led by 21 points from senior Brian Bernardi, who shot 6-for-12 from the floor. The Staten Islander drained five three-pointers in the victory, giving him 202 for his career in Hempstead and moving him into second on the Pride's all-time list, ahead of Carlos Rivera and trailing only program icon Antoine Agudio.

"I said this to Brian at the beginning of the year: Brian doesn't have to do anything different," Mihalich matter-of-factly stated with regard to his senior sharpshooter assuming the lead role in Hofstra's attack upon the graduation of both Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley. "He's a leader by just being who he is. Nobody's going to work any harder than him, and my battle cry to Brian was 'keep being who you are, and you're going to lead by example.' He's done that."

Hofstra needed Bernardi more than usual after Columbia (3-3) drew two fouls against Rokas Gustys in the first three minutes, forcing the Pride to play smaller without their all-conference forward, a lineup that became more critical when Hunter Sabety racked up a pair of fouls as well. With Ty Greer (15 points, eight rebounds) playing in the middle alongside four guards, Mihalich found a lineup that could not only be serviceable in game action, but one that could create opportunities at the same time.

"Tyquone Greer did a good job in the middle there," the coach reiterated, highlighting the impact of the junior college transfer from Chicago. "If we have to go to that lineup, it looks like we could do that, which is good. It's still kind of early in the season and we're still learning about our team, but this was one of the things we learned."

Coming out of the intermission with a 39-33 halftime lead, Gustys made up for lost time almost immediately, scoring the first points of the second stanza and helping Hofstra stretch their lead into double digits before accumulating his third foul. With the Lithuanian big man on the bench, Columbia ripped off a 12-3 spurt to get within one point before the Pride slowly rebuilt their cushion, matching their largest advantage of the night with a 12-point margin with 6:10 to play in regulation.

"I don't think we were worried," said Bernardi when the Lions turned an 81-69 deficit into a slim one-point lead four minutes and five seconds later. "We all huddled up and locked in. We knew we had to get some stops and we knew we had to make free throws at the end."

Columbia fed off the duo of Luke Petrasek and Nate Hickman, who accounted for 27 and 21 points, respectively; as well as a stifling full-court press that caught Hofstra visibly off guard as the Pride struggled to close out the game.

"They became hesitant," said head coach Jim Engles of Hofstra's difficulty handling the pressure. "They were up there trying to protect the lead and we became aggressive. I thought we did a good job in that situation, but that's something we have to do a better job in the half-court with."

Columbia took a brief 86-85 initiative with 2:05 on the clock after a Petrasek three-pointer from the left arc, but surrendered it on the next possession when Eli Pemberton sank both free throws after drawing a foul, swinging the pendulum back into Hofstra's favor. The Lions had three chances to secure a win in the final minute, most notably after forcing a held ball when Bernardi could not keep possession, but CJ Davis' layup attempt was blocked by Pemberton before Greer stripped away a last-ditch effort to win in regulation.

Following a split by Deron Powers (15 points, eight assists) at the foul line that put Hofstra ahead by two, the home team had yet one more chance to walk off victorious on their home floor, but Mike Smith's runner from beyond the mid-court stripe bounced off the rim, giving the Pride a valuable non-conference win in what amounted to a shootout on both ends.

"We just kind of had a toughness to us at the end," said Mihalich on a night where Hofstra shot 59 percent (31-for-53) from the floor despite allowing a 50 percent (31-for-62) clip to Columbia. "Some guys made plays when they absolutely had to, whether it was Deron with the drive, or Brian or Jamall (Robinson) doing something on the defensive end. Without sounding a little corny here, it was just that will to win. These guys just wouldn't let a loss happen to them."

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