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The Hofstra men’s basketball team has spent its entire existence in the CAA trying to recapture the feeling the program enjoyed in the spring of 2001, when the then-Flying Dutchmen exited the America East by winning their second straight conference title and making the school’s most recent NCAA Tournament appearance.
But did the Pride continue displaying that 2001-esque mojo Saturday, against an opponent and inside a venue that conjures up memories of the program’s finest days?
Hofstra locked up at least a share of the regular season title with a 78-62 win over Delaware at a raucous and sold-out Bob Carpenter Center. It was the eighth straight win and the sixth by double figures for the Pride, which will clinch the no. 1 seed in the CAA Tournament for the second straight season with either one more win — it hosts Towson on Thursday and James Madison on Saturday — or a loss by William & Mary in the Tribe’s season finale against Elon on Saturday.
Hofstra hasn’t won back-to-back regular season titles since…you guessed it, 2000 and 2001, when the Dutchmen topped the America East by going 16-2 in each season. Sweeping its final homestand would give the Pride its second straight 15-3 mark in CAA play.
In other words: Comparisons to 2001 are inevitable for Hofstra. But the composition of the Pride and the thus-far ruthless nature of its late-season charge is evoking vivid recollections of the first two-plus months of 2001.
Back then, the senior-laden Dutchmen were driven by the challenge of repeating as league champions even without Craig “Speedy” Claxton, the program-altering do-everything guard who directed Hofstra to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 23 years in 2000, graduated as the school’s fourth all-time leading scorer and was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Pride lost more than just a superstar from last season’s squad. Justin Wright-Foreman, who climbed to second on the program’s all-time scoring list before graduating and being drafted by the Utah Jazz, exited along with graduate transfer big men Jacquil Taylor and Dan Dwyer. But they left behind an experienced group of teammates eager to take the step they could not last season, when Hofstra led the CAA from start to finish but lost to Northeastern in the tournament title game.
“Listen, we had a great year last year,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said late Saturday afternoon. “We had a record-setting year last year. But our guys, we came up one game short. And they’re driven. They want to get back to that championship game and try to finish the job off.”
Claxton was the only player who didn’t return in 2000-01, when Hofstra went 26-5 and rolled into the NCAA Tournament with a single-season program-record 18-game winning streak. Ten of the The Dutchmen were led by fifth-year point guard Jason Hernandez, who was content to set up his teammates — his 296 career assists ranked among the school’s all-time top 10 upon his graduation — but was also not shy about taking the big shots when necessary. Hernandez averaged in double figures (12.1 ppg) for the first time as a senior.
Hofstra’s biggest offensive weapon in 2000-01 was Norman Richardson, a 6-foot-5 wing who arrived on campus after spending a year at a prep school in Connecticut Richardson averaged 16.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game on his way to being named the America East Player of the Year and graduating as the sixth-leading scorer in school history.
The Pride’s surge this winter has been fueled by fifth-year senior point guard Desure Buie and 6-foot-5 wing Eli Pemberton, who spent a year at a prep school in Connecticut before arriving on Long Island. Buie ranks fifth all-time in assists and leads Hofstra with 18.7 points per game this season — his 542 points are 150 fewer than he scored in his first four seasons — while Pemberton is averaging 16.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game during a campaign in which he’s surpassed Richardson on the all-time scoring list and climbed to ninth place overall.
On Saturday, Buie (27 points, nine assists) and Pemberton (25 points, nine rebounds) each flirted with double-doubles while combining to score 52 points, including 34 in the second half (19 for Buie, 15 for Pemberton). Buie and Pemberton accounted for all of Hofstra’s points in a game-turning 16-2 second half run that turned a 43-40 deficit into a 56-45 lead. The duo scored 11 unanswered points to begin the run, which started with back-to-back game-tying and go-ahead 3-pointers by Buie.
“They’re older, they’re mature, they’re experienced, they’ve grown up in college basketball,” Delaware head coach Martin Ingelsby said. “They’ve won a lot of games. They know what it’s like to go on the road in a tough environment to be able to get it down. They made big shots. They executed. They were poised under pressure.”
An afternoon that began with the Pride falling into an 8-0 hole ended with another resounding double-digit victory, one that served as a measure of revenge for an earlier narrow loss at home to Delaware, which earned a 73-71 victory on Kevin Anderson’s last-second layup on Long Island on Jan. 23.
Hofstra opened conference play in 2000-01 on Nov. 30 by falling at home to the Blue Hens, 79-74. The Dutchmen’s final defeat in the regular season was a 74-70 loss to Boston University on Jan. 5, 2001. Ten of the final 12 victories in the 18-game winning streak were by double digits, including wins over Delaware (68-55) and Boston University (77-56).
In the second half of CAA play this year, the Pride has avenged earlier losses to William & Mary and Charleston with double-digit victories.
“You knew Joe would have those guys ready to play, especially those experienced older guys,” Ingelsby said. “They were going to be ready to compete today.”
They were also ready to provide reminders of how far the Pride have come under Mihalich, just as the Dutchmen’s 2000-01 season served as a referendum for the program he’d built at a school that went 9-20 the year before he arrived, when it played in a conference without an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The presence of Buie and Pemberton — surrounded in the starting lineup by redshirt junior Tareq Coburn, true junior Jalen Ray and redshirt sophomore Isaac Kante and supplemented off the bench by redshirt junior Stafford Trueheart and redshirt sophomore Kevin Schutte — served as a reminder of the pipeline built over seven seasons at Hofstra by Mihalich, who inherited a 7-25 team following the 2012-13 season.
“I’m just so proud of what Hofstra basketball has become,” Mihalich said.
After 22 seasons as a head coach at the mid-major level, Mihalich understands how a team is defined over how it fares at the conference tournament, and how afternoons like Saturday can be rendered footnotes with an ill-timed loss in early March. But the Pride’s victory, coupled with the sights and sounds of Saturday afternoon, made it impossible not to think about the path of this season, and how similar it feels to the one Hofstra navigated 19 years ago.
Playing a big game in Delaware served as a reminder of the peak days of the Hofstra-Delaware rivalry, when Delaware hosted the first three rounds of the America East tournament before the championship game was held at the highest remaining seed. Cars were backed up for blocks along Route 896 trying to get into the Bob Carpenter Center’s parking lots and the sellout crowd of 4,722 was in full roar hoping to rattle the visitors and generate a better postseason draw for the home team.
Now, like then, an outnumbered but vocal (hey, they’re from Long Island) group of Hofstra fans drove down the New Jersey Turnpike and sat behind their bench, rooting on the team in hostile territory. Afterward, with the “Bob” emptying around them, the Long Island faithful remained as players waved and jogged off the court and Mihalich trailed behind, blowing kisses at the end of an afternoon in which the Pride continued traveling back in time while moving closer to a goal almost two decades in the making.