Where Joe Mihalich would go, they would go, and if he failed, they would fail.
That’s what was at stake in 2013, when Ameen Tanksley and Juan’ya Green left Niagara University to join their former coach at his new job — head of Hofstra’s men basketball team, a program in deep turmoil that managed only seven wins the season prior, when four players were arrested on burglary charges.
But Tanksley and Green believed in Mihalich enough to put their careers in his hands. “That’s why we came here,” Mihalich said, flanked by the men who followed him all the way from the Canadian border, “to win championships.”
Saturday night, the Pride defeated the College of Charleston, 72-63, at the Mack Sports Complex, earning them a share of the regular-season CAA title — the first in Hofstra’s history in the conference, which they joined in 2001. Better yet, the victory ensures them the No. 1 seed in the CAA Tournament in Baltimore, which kicks off Friday and the Pride will play Saturday against the winner of No. 8 Elon and No. 9 Drexel. Hofstra is three wins from a spot in the NCAA Tournament, too.
That’s all well and good, but as Mihalich sat reflecting on how far his team had come, and what they’d just accomplished, he couldn’t help but think about more than basketball. He got choked up twice, at times having a hard time finding the words for what it means to have come this far, but also to face the reality that this is his last year with Green — a strong candidate for CAA player of the year — and Tanksley. Green scored 17 points with 10 assists Saturday, and Tanksley had 10 points.
“You don’t know what it’s like to stand at halfcourt and watch these guys walk out there,” he said, choking back tears, pausing, “to do what we did.”
What Hofstra (22-8, 14-4) did was live up to the hype of being projected to win the CAA before the season, and navigate the attention and pressure that comes with it. Saturday, they did it by outplaying Charleston at its own game.
The Cougars (16-13, 8-10) held opponents to 65 points or fewer in 17 of their 28 games, and lead the CAA in defense, allowing an average of 61.4 points. The Pride seemed destined for the same fate for most of the first half before breaking a tie at 19 on Rokas Gustys’ layup with 4:38 left, igniting a 7-0 run.
The Pride held Charleston to 26 points in the first half — clogging up the lane to force perimeter shots (the Cougars were 3-for-10 from downtown in the first half and shot 38.5 percent overall).
The Cougars held a brief lead early in the first half but never caught up, and Hofstra was up by as many as 14 in the second half. Gustys had 13 points and 14 rebounds.
Marquise Pointer scored 19 points and Cameron Johnson 18 for Charleston.
“We’ve been through a lot these five years, getting to the end, I’m going to miss everything,” said Green, who was peppered with MVP chants and walked into Mihalich’s awaiting hug when he was pulled from the game with seconds left. “We had the mind-set of coming in, working hard and competing every day in practice and forcing each other to be better.”
That apparently extended to the coach, too.
“It’s why we do this, to be with great people,” Mihalich said. “These guys all think they learned from me but the really good coaches learn from players. They taught me how to be a better person.”
Mihalich stopped, pausing even longer. He choked back tears until Green gently put his hand on his shoulder.
“They make you a good coach,” he said. “I’m a lucky guy.”