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Freshman Eli Pemberton spurs Hofstra comeback

Hofstra guard Eli Pemberton shoots a free throw

Hofstra guard Eli Pemberton shoots a free throw aCoppin State during the first half of an NCAA Division I men's basketball game at Mack Sports Center on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

If first impressions are any indication, fans of Hofstra men’s basketball might want to look into soothing nature walks this season, or maybe crocheting. Really anything to help manage the stress.

Friday night’s season opener against Coppin State should have been an easy one. It should have given fans plenty of time to peruse the concession stand and chat with friends. Instead, the 74-72 win over the Eagles made even bathroom breaks a luxury.

The Pride, which defeated Coppin State by 41 points two years ago, erased a nine-point, second-half deficit behind Eli Pemberton’s 20 points, marking one of the best freshman debuts in team history. (It’s the most points scored in any freshman debut since 2004.) Junior big man Rokas Gustys matched a career high with 23 rebounds and added 10 points.

The Eagles, who went 9-22 last year, were selected 10th in the MEAC preseason coaches’ poll. The Pride, meanwhile, is coming off an NIT berth, its first since 2007.

“It was a game that had loss written all over it and we refused to let that happen. We knew it was a dangerous team,” coach Joe Mihalich said, adding that perhaps there was some element of underestimating an opponent. “Was it opening-game jitters? Without a doubt . . . Everything that could go wrong went wrong.”

The Eagles, greatly improved, came within two missed free throws of overtime. Dejuan Clayton was fouled while attempting a game-tying three with 2.3 seconds left but made only one. Coppin State regained possession but couldn’t get a shot off before time expired.

Pemberton’s three with 2:26 left in the game broke a tie at 66 and erased the sting of what had been a nine-point second-half deficit. Josh Treadwell (25 points) had hit a three to put Coppin State up 50-41 with 13:11 to go, but Hofstra scored the next 11 — led by Desure Buie, who had five in the stretch — to take the temporary lead.

“The best part of the night was that I had to yank Elijah out of the game and I had to rip him,” Mihalich said. “A lot of guys would have cowered, would have hung their head . . . And this man — I say this man — handled it, came out and was the best player on the floor.”

A 14-0 run in the latter portion of the first half gave Coppin State a 10-point lead as the Pride struggled to find its footing. Hofstra shot only 4-for-18 in the final 10:05 of the first half, missing eight three-point attempts along the way. Pemberton’s three with seven seconds left drew the Pride to within 36-28 going into the break. By that time, Mihalich’s ripping had already begun to work its magic.

“I’m a player first,” Pemberton said. “I just want to win. If I’m on the floor . . . and I’m not doing something to make the team win, that’s on me.

“I was nervous my first game — super nervous . . . and when he yelled at me, it made me realize he just cares.”

Hofstra women romp. Earlier at Mack, Ashunae Durant scored 19 points, and the Hofstra women forced 19 turnovers in a 62-42 season-opening victory over Marist. Krystal Luciano had nine points, six assists and six rebounds and the Pride led from the very beginning, opening the game on a 7-0 run. Sydni Epps had 11 rebounds for the Pride. Maura Fitzpatrick led Marist with 12 points and 10 rebounds, as the Red Foxes were held to 28.9 percent shooting.


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