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Hofstra embarks on CAA Tournament with NCAA bid at stake

Hofstra Pride guard Justin Wright-Foreman controls the ball

Hofstra Pride guard Justin Wright-Foreman controls the ball during the first half against the Drexel Dragons at the Mack Sports Complex on Feb. 17, 2018. Credit: Lee S. Weissman / Lee S. Weissman

Hofstra has a chance to dance. Given the wide-open nature of the Colonial Athletic Association and the team’s own four-game winning streak, the third-seeded Pride believes it has every right to dream of winning the conference tournament and qualifying for The Big Dance.

“Listen, the battle cry, when you’re a mid-major school, is to try to give your school a chance to win the conference tournament every year. And I think that’s where we are,” said coach Joe Mihalich, whose team (19-11, 12-6) will face sixth-seeded North Carolina Wil mington on Sunday night in North Charleston, South Carolina. “I don’t know if we’re favored to win it and I don’t know if we’re predicted to lose the first round. But we all feel like we have a chance to win it, and that’s all anybody wants.”

Most observers surely would favor the College of Charleston, which is the No. 1 seed and host. But Charleston lost four of 18 conference games and defeated Hofstra by only one point Feb. 3.

Teams in the CAA are widely dispersed in geography and tightly bunched in talent. They all realize that theirs is a one-bid league and the only way to reach the NCAA Tournament is to win the four-day conference event.

Hofstra beat Wilmington by 20 in Hempstead and lost by 20 in Wilmington. “I think it kind of defines what our league is all about. Anybody can beat anybody, anybody is as good as anybody,” Mihalich said.

The Pride has been as hot as anyone lately. Elon coach Matt Matheny, whose team lost at home to Hofstra, 67-48, last month, said on a conference call this past week: “Credit to them, they took us out of everything. They just never let up.”

Opponents have struggled to contend with Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman (24.2 points per game), who was named the CAA Player of the Year on Friday; big man Rokas Gustys, who is 19 rebounds short of David Robinson’s conference record of 1,314, and all-around standout Eli Pemberton (16.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists).

Wilmington is led by guard Jordon Talley and big man Devontae Cacok, both of whom were on the squad that beat Hofstra in overtime in the conference final two years ago. The coach is C.B. McGrath, an assistant to Roy Williams for national champion North Carolina last season.

Of Hofstra, McGrath said: “We realize we split with them and have some confidence we can play well against them, but in saying that, we have to execute our game plan better than they execute their game plan. It’s the third time we’ve seen each other, so we know what each other is trying to do.

“Every situation I encounter is a learning experience because it’s my first time through it as a head coach.”

McGrath has learned what Mihalich knows from his five years at Hofstra: the tournament is a toss-up among aspiring Dancers.

“The difference between first and eighth, two and seven, three and six, four and five is going to be minimal,” the Pride coach said during a week of preparation for UNC Wilmington. “That’s the case in this game: two teams that are going toe-to-toe. Both games had large margins, so this one will probably go right down to the wire.”

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