It was a tough, transitional regular season for Hofstra basketball, but when it came to an end with an 82-71 victory over James Madison on Saturday night at the Mack Sports Complex, no one wanted to go home -- least of all the seniors and graduate students at the end of their star-crossed college careers.
Freshman Jamall Robinson, one of the early recruits of the Joe Mihalich era, showed his promise with a career-high 22 points. But the night belonged to the likes of grad student transfers Zeke Upshaw (18 points) and Dion Nesmith (12) and graduating senior Stephen Nwaukoni (nine points, 13 rebounds), who played under Mo Cassara before Mihalich's arrival last spring.
"It was amazing," Upshaw said of the finish.
"It was very emotional for me and Zeke," Nwaukoni added. "It was my last home game. Why not leave it all on the court?"
That's exactly what the Pride (9-22, 5-11 Colonial Athletic Association) did.
Hofstra trailed 41-39 at halftime after allowing the Dukes (11-19, 6-10) to shoot 60.9 percent in the first half, including 6-for-12 from three-point range.
But in the second half, Mihalich's team showed it could play defense, holding JMU to 24.2 percent shooting, including a streak of 10 straight missed field goals during the stretch when the Pride took control.
"It was more intangibles than X's-and-O's," Mihalich said of the defensive turnaround. "Our transition defense was better as well."
The Dukes' last lead came at 56-55 at the 11:05 mark. The Pride outscored them 27-15 the rest of the way, making their final 10 free-throw attempts.
"The battle cry before the game was to finish the season the right way," Mihalich said. "We have a little mojo going to the tournament in Baltimore. It's great that the seniors did so well. There's just a real good feeling in the locker room. Everyone is 0-0 now."
Mihalich couldn't help but note that the Pride just came off a stretch of single-digit losses to the three best teams in the CAA -- Delaware, Towson and William & Mary. If Hofstra can match the emotion, 47.4 percent shooting and second-half defense it showed against the Dukes, it could throw a wrench into anyone's postseason plans.
Hofstra now meets UNC Wilmington, a team it swept during the regular season, in its CAA Tournament opener Friday night. The winner advances to face No. 1 Delaware, which had two close wins over the Pride.
"We're going to try and take it all, win the championship, go as far as we can," Nwaukoni said.
Why not set your goals high?
For Upshaw, who transferred as a graduate student from Illinois State, every second he can prolong his college career is precious. In the course of 63 games over three seasons with the Redbirds, he averaged 1.6 points and scored a total of 100 points. This season, he led Hofstra with a 19.7 average.
"I can't even describe it, how good it's been," Upshaw said of the season just transpired. "It's been the best year of my life."