The “glue guy,” versatile reserve forward Malik Nichols, was gone, lost with a season-ending knee injury. Suddenly, depth was a major problem for Hofstra, and it showed as the Pride struggled to narrow wins over Elon and Drexel before suffering losses to UNC Wilmington and James Madison in which fatigue was a factor.
But coach Joe Mihalich’s team adjusted and rose from those midseason ashes to finish with a six-game winning streak that gave Hofstra a tie for the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, which begins Friday night at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. A first-round bye put the Pride (22-8, 14-4 CAA) into a quarterfinal match at noon Saturday against the winner of Friday night’s game between No. 8 Elon (16-15, 7-11) and No. 9 Drexel (5-24, 3-15).
“There’s an expression: It’s amazing what good luck your bad luck will bring you,” said Mihalich, who added that Nichols’ injury forced him to give more minutes to forward Andre Walker and freshman guards Desure Buie and Justin Wright-Foreman. “It made us a better team. It helped us with our depth.”
Mihalich also went to more zone defense and less man-to-man and pressing to help keep his starters out of foul trouble. That kept sophomore center Rokas Gustys closer to the basket, where he began vacuuming up rebounds to limit opponents to one-shot possessions.
Seniors Juan’ya Green (17.7 points, 7.2 assists) and Ameen Tanksley (15.6 points, 5.3 rebounds) are the leaders, but Gustys (13.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, .650 field-goal percentage) has stamped himself as a strong candidate for CAA player of the year next season.
“He’s just learned how to play, not just offensively but defensively, too,” Mihalich said of Gustys. “Last year, he was in foul trouble often. He’s just learned how to play, and we’ve adjusted our style a little bit, too.”
Gustys has reached double figures in rebounds in 17 straight games and 20 of the last 21. He ranks fourth in the nation in rebounds and eighth in double-doubles (19).
“Everybody stepped up a little bit to compensate for [Nichols’] loss, which was a huge loss,” Gustys said. “It wasn’t only me.
“Definitely, our main goal is to protect the glass and don’t let them get the second shots. I think I took it personal for myself. We took Malik’s rebounding on each other.”
Gustys attributed the Pride’s season-ending winning streak to great locker-room chemistry and the leadership of Green. “Everybody is happy and just excited,” Gustys said. “It’s March. Those six games we won were great for us. I think we just get along with each other much better. We’re like family. We build on it.
“Juan’ya has been playing like the player of the year. He makes everybody better. He’s just a team leader, and he’s going to lead us to the championship.”