In the moments before Hofstra’s season opener Wednesday night, tribute was paid one more time to a memorable 2018-19 campaign with the raising of the banner acknowledging the Pride’s trip to the NIT.
Unfortunately for the Pride, the reminders of what used to be didn’t cease upon tipoff.
The Pride, playing its first game since the graduation of superstar Justin Wright-Foreman, squandered an eight-point second half lead and absorbed a 79-71 upset loss to San Jose State.
Afterward, the Pride were adamant the absence of Wright-Foreman — who was selected by the Utah Jazz in the second round of June’s draft — wasn’t a factor in the defeat.
“Listen, we all love Justin, it would be nice to play with him the rest of our lives,” Pride head coach Joe Mihalich said. “But they know — he’s not here anymore. And Elijah (Pemberton) is excited about stepping into a new role. Tareq’s (redshirt junior Coburn) excited about stepping into a new role. Every guy in that room is.
“He’s not here anymore. He ain’t coming back. We play the game the right way, we should be good enough to have a chance to win this league.”
The coaches in the CAA and the media covering the league agreed by selecting the Pride to win the conference in the preseason poll. Despite losing Wright-Foreman and his 27.1 points per game, the Pride returned three starters — Coburn and seniors Pemberton and Desure Buie — while promoting junior Jalen Ray, a prolific shooter off the bench the last two seasons, and redshirt sophomore Isaac Kante, who transferred from Georgia, into the starting lineup.
In other words, this isn’t the Pride of 2011-12, when there was no obvious candidate to replace the do-everything skills of all-time leading scorer Charles Jenkins, or 2016-17, when Hofstra had to fill the holes left by the graduations of Juan’ya Green, Ameen Tanksley and Denton Koon.
The starters Wednesday scored all but two of Hofstra’s points and took every shot but one (backup big man Kevin Schutte had a dunk).
“Just because 27 points leaves doesn’t mean we can’t replace him,” Pemberton said. “We’ve got too many good scorers, too many good shooters, to not cover (for him).”
But Hofstra was missing Wright-Foreman’s down-the-stretch ability, even while double- or triple-teamed, to make a shot that stopped the bleeding. After taking a 61-53 lead on Kante’s free throw with 7:07 left, the Pride was outscored 26-10 the rest of the way.
Ray and Pemberton hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions as the Pride took a 69-67 lead with 3:32 to play, but Hofstra scored on just one of its final eight possessions, a span in which Ray, Coburn and Buie all missed open 3-pointers.
“We took turns missing wide-open 3s,” Mihalich said. “That’s the guys we want shooting. I hope we get those shots on Saturday, because I think we’ll make them.”
Of course, it wasn’t solely an offensive breakdown in the final minutes for the Pride. After falling behind by eight points, San Jose State scored on eight straight possessions and 11 of its final 14 trips down the floor. The game-ending run began with Brae Ivey hitting a 3-pointer after Craig LeCesne collected an offensive rebound. Seven of the Spartans’ last 26 points were of the second-chance variety.
Later, Richard Washington mounted his own decisive 9-0 run by draining three consecutive 3-pointers over the Pride’s zone defense.
“We can’t blame Justin Wright-Foreman for our loss,” Pemberton said as he looked at the stat sheet on the podium. “Look at the rebounds — out-rebounded by 14 (47-33). It’s the little things. Little things (are why) we lost today. Justin didn’t have anything to do with it.”
The great thing about a season opener is there’s another 30 or so chances to either build on it, or prove it was an outlier. On Saturday, when Hofstra hosts Monmouth, the Pride’s veterans can prove they’re up to the task of replacing Wright-Foreman and setting a tone on both ends of the floor.
Monmouth is a team against whom the Pride made a statement last season with a 75-73 win. The Hawks arrived in Hempstead with an 0-9 record and eight losses by at least 11 points.
But Monmouth led Hofstra in the final minute before Wright-Foreman converted a go-ahead old-fashioned 3-point play with 16 seconds left. The Pride then mounted a defensive stand that ended with the Hawks’ Louie Pillari launching a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim with one second left.
Afterward, the normally ebullient Wright-Foreman glowered, as if he was far madder than relieved over the near-miss. The win was the third of 16 straight for the Pride, who led the CAA wire-to-wire in the regular season before falling to Northeastern in the conference championship game.
“I don’t know that it’s Xs and Os — it’s about being tough, it’s about having fight, it’s about hating to lose,” Mihalich said. “It’s attitude and effort. And you can control those things. You can’t control how well you shoot. You’re going to have bad shooting nights. But you can control your attitude, you can control effort. There’s other things.
“It’s all the intangibles. It’s a matter of looking in the mirror and deciding who we are, who we want to be.”