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It was one thing for Joe Mihalich to hope Hofstra’s cross-country, Thanksgiving-bridging five-game road trip to California and Florida could speed up the maturation and gelling process of a team still trying to find its way in the post-Justin Wright-Foreman era. But for it to actually happen?
“We came one game short of it being one of the most incredible stretches I’ve ever been on,” Mihalich said Thursday night. “It was a helluva trip. We learned a lot about ourselves as a team — the brotherhood, the bonding, all the little things.”
The Pride went 4-1 during the warm-weather trek, a trip capped by wins Sunday and Monday over Holy Cross and Canisius in the Naismith bracket of the Boca Raton Classic — the first in-season tournament championship for Hofstra since the 2012-13 season.
Before heading to Florida, the Pride experienced an eventful week in California in which the team visited the USS Midway, kept up with its studies during daily study halls and, oh yeah…
“Not to mention the fact that we had an historic win at Pauley Pavilion,” Mihalich said of the Pride’s trip-opening 88-78 win over UCLA on Nov. 21. Afterward, Mihalich conducted a 3 AM radio spot with sports talk giant WFAN in New York City and told host John Jastremski he’d be happy to come on the air again during the morning drive because he wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon.
⚡️ “Hofstra Stuns UCLA”https://t.co/vuxn6SvnL2— Hofstra Men's Basketball (@HofstraMBB) November 23, 2019
The win over UCLA — in which the Pride trailed by as many as 13 in the first half — marked the emergence of a more assertive Desure Buie and Eli Pemberton, the two stars who thrived as Robins to Wright-Foreman’s Batman most of the last two seasons.
After shooting 41.5 percent in the season’s first four games, Buie scored a career-high 29 points against the Bruins. Pemberton shot 46.3 percent in the first four games but has drained half his shots (34-of-68) since, a span in which he tied a career-high by scoring 28 points against San Diego on Nov. 27. He also has at least eight rebounds in three of the Pride’s last five games.
“I think Desure and Elijah were ready to be the stars early on, but it took them a while to realize that’s what they really want, and then they did it — they actually did it,” Mihalich said. “They were just not going to let their team lose.”
The trip also served to cement the status of Jalen Ray and Tareq Coburn as core players. Ray scored a career-high 27 points against UCLA while Coburn registered his second double-double of the season on Monday, when he had 18 points and 11 rebounds in the 64-57 win over Canisius. Coburn scored seven of Hofstra’s first 10 points Monday and seven points in a 3:40 span late in the second half in which the Pride took the lead for good.
“What was good for those guys was they still have Desure and Elijah to be the stars,” Mihalich said. “Now Jalen and Tareq can go to another level of being key players.”
Mihalich was most impressed with the maturity exhibited by his team following the win over UCLA. Hofstra exhibited no sign of a hangover by routing Cal State Fullerton, 79-57, on Nov. 24. After falling to San Diego, 79-69, three days later, the Pride cruised by then-winless Holy Cross, 91-69, in the Boca Raton Classic opener before grinding out an atypically sludgy win over Canisius — a game in which Ray was limited to seven second-half minutes by an ankle injury.
“It just shows you that we have a toughness about us, and we like when it’s tough,” Mihalich said. “We know what it’s like to work hard. We lived it. We experienced it. Our guys like it.”
The Pride gets one more far-flung game in a potentially hostile environment Saturday, when it visits St. Bonaventure in what is officially a “campus round” game of the Boca Raton Classic, It also pits the two champions from Boca Raton (St. Bonaventure emerged from the Hall of Fame bracket) and gives Hofstra more exposure to another defensively-minded team. The Bonnies have given up more than 70 points just twice in their first eight games.
And while the Pride is hoping to return from upstate with another victory, the three weeks it spent away from its on-campus arena will go down as an unqualified success regardless of how Hofstra fares Saturday.
“Listen, I think we all would have signed up for (4-1),” Mihalich said. “We all would have figured, OK, we didn’t beat UCLA, beat everybody else. But be 4-1 and have that UCLA win in there? Pretty cool.”