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Hofstra players crushed as NCAA Tournament is canceled

Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich is showered with water

Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich is showered with water from his team after they defeated Northeastern in the Colonial Athletic Association championship on Tuesday in Washington.  Credit: AP/Nick Wass

After earning its first trip to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 19 years, Hofstra was looking to score an upset in The Big Dance. Instead, every member of the Pride ended up being upset.

Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich needed to fight through his own disappointment to pick up the pieces of his crushed players’ spirits after the NCAA announced Thursday that it had canceled its men’s and women’s championship tournaments because of the coronavirus health threat.

“There were plenty of tears, some shock and a bunch of ‘I don’t understand,’  ” Mihalich said Thursday evening. “I don’t blame them because what’s happened is surreal and devastating. But you also have to respect that this is a real serious matter.”

The Pride defeated Northeastern on Tuesday to capture their first Colonial Athletic Association championship and punch the ticket for their first March Madness since 2001. The players beamed as they stood on the dais for the trophy presentation and cut down the nets at Washington’s Entertainment and Sports Arena. They returned to campus Wednesday for a couple days off.

Upon hearing the cancellation news, Mihalich summoned the team to its locker room. He said nine or 10 were still on campus and showed up, though some of the key figures had gone home to be with family — Desure Buie was in the Bronx, Eli Pemberton was in Connecticut, Isaac Kante was in Brooklyn and Tareq Coburn was in Queens.

He spoke to those who were there and called the others.

“Those calls were a hard thing to do,” Mihalich said. “Elijah was in tears. Desure was more in shock and disbelief.”

He said most of them had “a queasy feeling” when the NCAA announced Wednesday that tournament games would be played but would not be open to the public. He said “that feeling just got worse and worse this morning as the power conferences were canceling tournaments.”

“So the emotions then went to the ‘hope springs eternal’ category,” he said. “Maybe, please, don’t cancel it and just postpone it. Take whatever [time] you need. Instead of March Madness, let’s have May Madness. Just postpone until you figure it out. And then the hammer — just devastating.

“The hardest thing to explain to those guys was what to do with that feeling that something was taken from you, something we earned,” Mihalich added. “We were robbed of the chance to sit there on Selection Sunday and hear our name get called out, find out where we’re going to go. We were robbed of the fun of this week and wondering, ‘Are we going to play Duke in Greensboro or face Villanova or Seton Hall?’ You don’t have the fun of the preparation, having the police escort on the bus to get you to the game. They earned those things.

“But we also have to understand the seriousness of this and that we have responsibilities to our communities, and this is a crisis on a global scale.”

Mihalich’s final message to the team might be one that takes time to land. He told his players to wrap themselves in the glory of their last game of the season, to think about ending with a win for a championship, cutting down the nets and hoisting a trophy.

“There was a lot of disappointment looking into their faces, but when I started to talk about all the things [we did], they picked up a little bit,” he said. “Their eyes started to gleam a little and they started nodding. I hope I was able to remind them they should feel good about themselves.”

The seventh-year Pride coach said the team will reunite and have a celebration but will need some time to get over this shock.

He added, “I’m heartbroken for the kids. They earned it but didn’t get to go on that NCAA Tournament ride.”

Game official tests positive

The CAA announced Thursday that one of the game officials at the conference tournament was symptomatic and had tested positive for the coronavirus. That official did not work any of Hofstra’s games.

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