A March Atmosphere In January As Hofstra Visits Northeastern

College sports typically don’t drive the engine or discussion in the pro sports-obsessed markets of Boston and New York, which means the players and fans of the Northeastern and Hofstra men’s basketball teams probably aren’t going to spend today and tonight jawing at one another and arguing over the color of the sky or the direction in which the sun rises and sets.

But just because there is a generally peaceful coexistence between the programs — and a certain simpatico relationship never to be mimicked by the Red Sox and Yankees or the Patriots and Jets — doesn’t diminish the rivalry that has developed between Northeastern and Hofstra, who renew acquaintances tonight in a key CAA game at Mathews Arena.

Tonight marks the 47th all-time meeting between the programs, who take the court tied at 23 wins apiece. They have played each other 30 times since Northeastern joined Hofstra in the CAA prior to the 2005-06 season, and 20 of those games have been decided by 10 points or fewer — including, appropriately, two of three last season, when each team’s campaign was defined by the games played against one other.

Northeastern led by nine on Long Island with fewer than five minutes left last Jan. 5, but Justin Wright-Foreman scored 12 of his 42 points down the stretch and hit a buzzer-beating 34-footer to lift the Pride to a 75-72 victory.

“It was a great game — it was a game that I felt we played well enough to give ourselves a chance, but you’ve got to close it out,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said Wednesday. “They had the best player in the league and he made plays and I think that’s the advantage when you have the best player on the court. That guy can step up in close games and be a separator, especially in conference games.”

The dramatic loss to the Pride dropped Northeastern to 1-2 in CAA play, but the Huskies won 15 of their next 17 games, including a 75-61 victory in Boston on Feb 2 over Hofstra that snapped the latter’s winning streak at 16 games. The Huskies then went on to win the CAA conference tournament with an 82-74 win against -- you guessed it -- Hofstra. 

“You learn more about yourself when you’re trying to figure out what’s going wrong, and you improve faster through a loss than you do through a win,” Coen said.

While there’s no diminishing what Hofstra accomplished by going nearly two months between losses last season, head coach Joe Mihalich understands the nature of life in a one-bid league, and how Northeastern won the only game most people will remember — and one Mihalich and the Pride can’t forget.

“It certainly drives me, it drives the coaches and it drives Desure (Buie) and Elijah (Pemberton) and Jalen (Ray),” Mihalich said Wednesday, referring to his three top returnees from last season. “A lot of us have been waiting since March 12 to play this game.”

That an early January game carries with it a March-esque anticipation is a testament to Coen and Mihalich in what could have been a transition year for each program. 

Hofstra lost Wright-Foreman and center Jacquil Taylor to graduation while Northeastern lost senior Vasa Pusica, the most outstanding performer of the CAA Tournament, as well as juniors Donnell Gresham, who transferred to Georgia, and Shawn Occeus, who turned pro.

But Hofstra was picked to finish first in the CAA’s preseason poll, while Northeastern placed third. Both teams have met expectations thus far thanks to seniors who have seamlessly stepped into shoes that seemed impossible to fill.

Buie, who was the Pride’s third-leading scorer last season, has morphed into Wright-Foreman by scoring 35 points against Towson on Dec. 30 and 44 points against Elon last Saturday. 

He was the second CAA player this season to collect at least 40 points and five rebounds in a game. The first? Northeastern’s Jordan Roland, who averaged 14.6 points per game while serving as the Robin to Pusica’s Batman, but opened this season with a 39-point effort against Boston University on Nov. 6 and racked up 42 points and six rebounds against Harvard two days later.

The emergence of Buie and Roland as stars underline the alchemic skills of Mihalich and Coen, a pair of college basketball lifers who admire the other for embracing the grind and the task of building a consistent contender in a mid-major league.

“Coach Mihalich does an outstanding job,” Coen said. “Their style of play is always tough to compete against. He’s a master of making adjustments. We’ve played each other a number of times now. As coaches, we have tendencies, just like players, and both staffs are pretty familiar with each other.”

“No doubt about that — we know each other,” Mihalich said. “He knows what we’re going to do. They know what we’re going to do. It’s just going to be a cat-and-mouse game. Who can figure out their own little things to do differently, or what are you going to do to do it better?”

The success enjoyed by Coen and Mihalich is particularly vital given the directions each school has taken with its athletic programs over the last 10 years. In one of the great coincidences of the 2000s, or any other decade, Northeastern and Hofstra both dropped football in a nine-day span in December 2009.

While both schools have a tradition-rich secondary program — ice hockey at Northeastern and lacrosse at Hofstra — the dropping of football left no doubt that each school now identifies itself as a basketball school.

Of course, no one is consumed with a big picture outlook tonight, especially with both teams off Saturday before embarking upon the southern swing to UNC Wilmington and Charleston next weekend. 

Whomever wins in Boston will be positioned to remain no more than a game out of first place, while the loser is likely to be at least two games back and staring at tiebreaker deficits with tonight’s victor as well as William & Mary, which swept Hofstra and Northeastern on the road last week.

While Mihalich doesn’t need any reminding that a win in January may not matter much in March — “two games out right now might seem like a lot, but my goodness, there’s so many games to go” — Coen and the Huskies realize back-to-back home losses to CAA contenders will put them in a bigger hole than they’d like to reside fewer than two weeks into league play.

“We’ve already lost a home game to William & Mary; you don’t want to kind of figure out how you’re going to get those back on the road,” Coen said with a laugh. “Whether it was Hofstra or anybody else in the league, it’s an important game because it’s a league game. And it’s even more important because you’re at home and those games are critical if you’re going to be in the championship conversation.”

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