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NY Hoops: Joe Mihalich, looking to lead Hofstra to NCAA Tournament, has Yankees roots

Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich looks on in

Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich looks on in the second half of a game against Drexel at Mack Sports Complex on Dec. 30, 2018.

When Yankees general manager Brian Cashman met Hofstra basketball coach Joe Mihalich and two players at the studio before a recent TV appearance, Cashman and Mihalich chatted and realized they had made several mutual acquaintances during their lifetimes in sports. What the coach didn’t mention was that he also has Yankees roots.

Joe Mihalich Sr., the man most responsible for shaping the person who has guided the first-place Pride through a successful season, was a minor-league pitcher in the Yankees chain. His greatest claim to fame was that he roomed with 18-year-old Whitey Ford on the 1947 Class C Butler (Pennsylvania) Yankees.

“He was a little bit of a mentor for Eddie — he wasn’t ‘Whitey’ then — and because my grandmother lived not too far from Butler, Whitey would go there and stay at my grandmother’s house,” the coach said, proud of his late dad, who grew up in Western Pennsylvania and served in the Marines before his one year of pro baseball.

“He cracked that he had to quit because he hurt his neck because he would throw the ball and then turn around so fast to watch it go out of the park,” the son said in his office at Mack Sports Complex. “He was my idol. I think about him every day.” He added that the one downside of his father’s baseball foray was that he got hooked on chewing tobacco, which might have contributed to the cancer that took his life.

The Hofstra coach, 62, has had his own experiences, his own wonderful life, which has been celebrated more than ever this season. The Pride became a national story during a national-best 16-game winning streak. People began recognizing and saluting him for being a pro’s pro — 17 years as an assistant (at LaSalle, his alma mater) before getting his first head coaching job at Niagara. After 15 years there, he is in his sixth year on campus at Hempstead.

Now, he must put all of his savvy into reigniting a slumping team (two losses in three games, including a crusher in overtime Saturday on Senior Day). “This is where we have to be at our best, after a tough loss,” he said. “The way to deal with it is to talk about it.”

Mihalich’s players handled the winning streak exactly the same way: head-on. The team embraced it and kept working on its game, which is a lesson he learned from his Little League coach, Mihalich Sr.

“We were the Little League team that did squeeze bunts because my dad was so big on fundamentals,” the basketball coach said, recalling his childhood in Washington, D.C., where his father was studying for a doctorate at Georgetown. “I must have been 6 or 7, and he brought me to meet Whitey Ford when the Yankees were in town to play the Washington Senators. I remember hustling over there, down the rightfield line, and Whitey came over and said ‘Hi.’ ”

The elder Mihalich moved the family to Philadelphia when he became a professor of philosophy at LaSalle. The son was a multisport athlete at neighboring LaSalle High, but a balky knee knocked him out of football and immersed him in basketball. He never has looked back. He is friendly with all sorts of people in the sport, notably former Hofstra coach Jay Wright of national champion Villanova.

Hofstra has not been in the NCAA Tournament since Wright brought the team there in 2001. Mihalich would dearly like to end that drought. “It has been an incredible run. We’ve gotten a lot of breaks, we’ve made our breaks a lot, but it all comes back to these kids. These are really great kids,” he said of his players. “We’re going to hammer home the point that we’re still a really good team.”

SBU’s Yeboah recognized

Stony Brook’s Akwasi Yeboah was named America East Player of the Week, giving his team a boost as it prepares for its biggest game of the year. The Seawolves will host history-making UMBC at 7 p.m. Wednesday in a matchup likely to determine second seed in the conference tournament.

UMBC shook up the NCAA Tournament last March by beating top-ranked Virginia to become the first No. 16 seed ever to oust a No. 1 seed — three weeks after having lost to Stony Brook in the regular season. Yeboah had 18 points and eight rebounds in that game.

The Stony Brook junior, having shed the knee brace that he had worn since December, last week had 22 points and 12 rebounds in a loss to Albany and 27 points and six rebounds in a win over Maine. His team is one-half game ahead of UMBC in the race for second place, and the potential to host two playoff games. Seeding is particularly important in the America East tournament because every game is played on the higher seed’s court. Home teams are 23-5 since the league adopted the format in 2015.

St. John’s final homestand

St. John’s plays its final home game Thursday night against Xavier, which comes in with a head of steam after having gone on a 17-0 run to beat Villanova, 66-54, Sunday. The Musketeers (7-8) have won four in a row and are one game behind the Red Storm in the Big East standings . . . . Matthew Graham of Farmingdale State was co-player of the week in the Met Basketball Writers voting after having led the Rams to the Skyline Conference title and a place in the NCAA Division III tournament. He shared the award with Baruch’s Andre Harris of Melville.

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