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Hofstra comes roaring back in second half to beat UNCW

Hofstra's Zeke Upshaw reacts after the Pride take

Hofstra's Zeke Upshaw reacts after the Pride take their first lead with six minutes remaining in the second half of an NCAA Division I men's basketball game versus UNC Wilmington at Mack Sports Complex on Feb 8, 2014. Credit: James Escher

The way Hofstra saw the dramatic turnaround, it was more a matter of urgency than strategy. As coach Joe Mihalich described the home meeting against a winless opponent, "This was a game we had to win . . . But I tell you what, we did everything we could to lose it in the first half."

After what arguably was Hofstra's most brutal 20-minute stretch of the season -- and that is saying something, considering what the Pride did in a desultory loss at Fairleigh Dickinson last month -- Mihalich gave his players some friendly reminders about what the heck they were supposed to do. And an awful start became a pretty inspiring 61-52 win over UNCW (the formal name of the team from Wilmington, N.C.).

Hofstra overcame a 15-point deficit and finished with a 35-11 spurt to improve to 8-17 overall and 4-6 in the Colonial Athletic Association. The 4-6 record is not all that bad, considering that the Pride was almost out of players after last season. It sure is much better than UNCW's 0-10 (6-19 overall). The finishing kick said something about the team's fiber.

"I mean, it's a shame we don't do it all the time," said Jordan Allen, a sophomore forward from Bay Shore who had as inspired a game as anyone. Despite playing with a mask, the aftereffect of a broken nose, he scored 15 points, had nine rebounds and made a better-than-usual 7 of 11 free throws.

"Coach implores me not to make excuses, but I just think these past couple of games I haven't been myself," Allen said, referring to his injury. "He came in at halftime and gave me a little pep talk."

Mihalich's point was that there was no excuse for the way his team played in the first half in falling behind 35-21. He made a few adjustments to the defensive scheme at halftime, but it was more the way he said it than what he said. "There's the old saying, 'It's not X's-and-O's but Jimmys and Joes,' " Mihalich said. "We challenged them at halftime and talked about playing the game you love and playing like you love it."

Hofstra did pick up its defensive intensity in the second half, winning most of the loose-ball battles. That led to more upbeat and productive offense. With 8:02 left, Dion Nesmith (13 points, five assists) drove for a layup that cut the margin to 44-40. Then Zeke Upshaw (game-high 16 points) stole the inbounds pass and hit a layup to make it 44-42.

UNCW coach Buzz Peterson (Michael Jordan's teammate on North Carolina's 1982 NCAA title team) immediately called timeout, but it was too late. The tide had turned. Hofstra went ahead for good with 4:17 left when Moussa Kone grabbed an offensive rebound and dished to Upshaw, who hit a three-pointer.

"We were tired of losing," Upshaw said, alluding to a five-game skid. "We just wanted to change; change our whole attitude, everything."

It turned out to be a good night -- a rare 7 p.m. game for a team that usually plays at 4 on Saturdays. Said Mihalich, "We didn't play at 7, either. We didn't start playing until 8 o'clock."

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