NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Through every low point in the Hofstra season, and there were a few, coach Joe Mihalich kept saying that all that mattered was being ready for three days in March. It turned out the Pride would have only one, and half of that was not so hot.
In a cold final 20 minutes, the Hofstra men’s basketball team lost an eight-point lead and fell to Delaware, 81-76, in the first round of the CAA Tournament, ending a season that never really got going.
There always had been hope in and around the team that its talented parts would click at some point, and it sure appeared as if the Pride was heading in that direction. Hofstra won its final two regular-season games, both on the road, and the first of them ended William & Mary’s season-long home unbeaten streak.
“When they have all their pieces, they can beat anybody in this league. They were playing probably as well as anybody down the stretch,” Delaware first-year coach Martin Ingelsby said, mindful that Hofstra seemed to have maintained its stride in the first half lFriday night at North Charleston Coliseum as it raced to a 47-39 lead.
But — and there always seems to have been a “but” this season — the Pride (15-17) scored only 29 points and shot 38 percent in the second half. Hofstra was outscored 7-2 in the final 2:38. Instead of heading into a compelling matchup with top-seeded North Carolina Wilmington on Saturday, the team headed back to Hempstead.
“We couldn’t guard them. They scored it when they had to, made plays when they had to. We had our chances,” Mihalich said. “You always talk about those first five minutes of the game, of the second half. I thought the first five minutes of the second half kind of set the tone. We had the eight-point lead and right away it was three.”
There were times when Justin Wright-Foreman (23 points), the surprising breakout star of the conference, seemed unstoppable. But he didn’t get a shot in the final two minutes, at least in part because of Delaware’s heightened attention to guarding the three-point line.
The Pride was in deep trouble when Rokas Gustys fouled out on a call away from the ball with 22 seconds left. Eric Carter’s two free throws gave Delaware (13-19) a four-point lead before Deron Powers made a layup for Hofstra and Delaware’s Cazmon Hayes hit a free throw. Powers attempted a potential tying three-point attempt with nine seconds left, but it merely grazed the front of the rim. Freshman Ryan Daly — who had game-high totals of 27 points and 11 rebounds for the Blue Hens — sank two free throws with four seconds left, and that was that.
“It had nothing to do with their defense,” said Powers, not in the mood to be magnanimous. Wright-Foreman said, “We were getting shots, we just weren’t making them. Then down the stretch, I guess we just got a couple of bad shots and they were just capitalizing on it.”
When asked about the reasons for Hofstra never reaching its potential, Powers said, “I’m not sure.”
Mihalich was pretty certain, though, that it slipped away when Delaware grabbed momentum after halftime. “It gave them life, it gave them confidence,” he said. Then, in a descriptive postscript, he added, “We never quite got it going.”