Joe Mihalich has been a Division I head coach for 22 consecutive seasons, so he’s well-acquainted with the challenges of keeping his emotions in check on a Senior Day.
“You’re standing out there at half-court and all of a sudden this kid is walking towards you with his parents and you realize, geez, this is the last time he’s going to play here on this court and your mind just starts overflowing with memories,” Mihalich said this week.
But the memories and emotions will be especially vivid Saturday, when Mihalich’s most varied and productive group of homegrown seniors at Hofstra — Desure Buie, Connor Klementowicz and Eli Pemberton — are scheduled to be honored prior to the Pride’s regular season finale against James Madison.
Buie, who is in his fifth year after suffering a knee injury eight games into the 2016-17 season, has played in a program-record 137 games, is tied for 20th on Hofstra’s all-time scoring list, ranks fourth with 523 assists and needs three steals to become just the third player in program history with 1,000 points, 500 assists and 200 thefts. With a win over James Madison, or a William & Mary loss to Elon, Buie will become the first Pride/Flying Dutchmen player in the Division I era to be a part of three regular season conference champions.
“He kept getting better and better,” Mihalich said.
Pemberton ranks ninth all-time in scoring with 1,885 points and has drained the fourth-most 3-pointers in school history while starting 122 games, the second-most in program history behind Charles Jenkins. And Klementowicz is just the third Hofstra player in the last quarter-century to spend four years as a walk-on.
But when he thinks about the trio, Mihalich will think less of the contributions they made on the court and more of how they worked together to grow into leaders for a perennial CAA contender despite playing vastly different roles with the program.
“(Everyone) has friends that we love, we like them, but you know what, we don’t respect them because pick a reason, right?” Mihalich said. “Or there’s other people that you really respect, but you don’t like them. They’re not fun to be with, they’re not the kind of guys you want to go out and eat dinner with.
“But those three guys, they’re all liked and respected. And when you’ve got that going for you, then you can be a great leader.”
Buie didn’t start any of the 42 games he played in during his first two seasons, but Mihalich and his staff recognized his ability to connect with his peers right away. As Mihalich told the New York Post earlier this month, Buie attended a motivational speech on campus with fellow student athletes in which one got up and said he’d nearly committed suicide. Buie, who didn’t know the student-athlete prior to the meeting, went across the room and hugged him.
“Desure, it’s just an amazing thing — he wants people to be good and he sees the good in people and he takes on that (responsibility) where he wants to help them be as good as he knows they can be,” Mihalich said.
Buie played a key role in bringing those traits out of his fellow seniors. Unlike Buie and Klementowicz, Pemberton arrived on Long Island with high expectations after fielding more than 30 Division I offers before choosing Hofstra over schools such as Kansas State.
And while he began displaying that talent immediately — Pemberton scored 20 points in his collegiate debut on Nov. 11, 2016 and became the first Hofstra freshman to score in double figures in each of his first five games since Antoine Agudio, who was the school’s all-time leading scorer when he graduated in 2008 — he was also prone to falling into funks. Pemberton scored in single digits in back-to-back games three times as a freshman, had a pair of three-game slumps as a sophomore and scored fewer than 10 points in back-to-back games twice as a junior.
“He’s a really emotional guy, and one of the things you have to do, if you are to call yourself mature, is control your emotions,” Mihalich said. “Your emotions can govern your rationale and that’s all that would happen with him. They would govern his rationale instead of (him) saying ‘I didn’t play good but you know what, I’m better than that, I’m going to have a good practice tomorrow and get myself out of it.’ And he’s doing that this year.”
Pemberton has also grown more comfortable as a vocal leader with the assistance of Buie, a former AAU teammate who is just three months older than Pemberton but hosted him during the latter’s on-campus visit during the 2015-16 season.
“I got to that point where I was looked at as a leader, but I wasn’t saying much — I just wanted to play,” Pemberton said. “I wasn’t really telling people where to go (against) certain defenses, like the young guys. I felt like (Buie) always had that in him, so he had to bring that out of me. He knew that I was soft-spoken — even when we were playing AAU together, I didn’t really say anything.
“Desure’s like a big brother to me, in a sense. He’s only three months older, but I think his experiences already, just outside of basketball and on the court, he has a higher understanding of certain things and he’s just helped me out with that.”
Klementowicz has seen 61 minutes of action in his career — fewer minutes than Buie and Pemberton usually get in back-to-back games. But few players on the Pride engender as much respect from their teammates as Klementowicz, who turned himself into a core member of the squad while taking on the most thankless job in college sports.
“You’ve probably heard me use this phrase before: Know your role, accept your role, perfect your role,” Mihalich said. “Connor — I mean, no one understood their role better and perfected it and knew it and accepted it.”
Klementowicz understood from the day he arrived on campus he wouldn’t play much, but the intensity with which he had to practice — and the knowledge he’d play the equivalent of five or six games a week in practice — was underlined during his freshman year.
“There (was) a day where I’m doing scout team, it was early on, and I remember somebody saying to me ‘You have to go harder than that,’” Klementowicz said Wednesday afternoon. “They’re like ‘This is your game day.’ You learn right away. I’m not playing against Towson tomorrow, but I’m playing against the starters. I’ve got to make sure that they’re ready for tomorrow. I have to go as hard as I can. That’s your game day.”
Mihalich worked with Hofstra athletic director Rick Cole Jr. to reward Klementowicz and surprise him with a scholarship for his final semester. Klementowicz learned the news when Cole asked him to read the letter in front of teammates hours before the game against Drexel on Jan. 25. The first player to greet him after Klementowicz after he realized what he’d just read? Buie — the same player who implored Klementowicz to speak up more often at the beginning of the season.
“Everybody loves Connor,” Buie said. “The beginning of the year, when things weren’t going well, when we were early on and (had) a little slow start, I was telling Connor — we were just walking out to practice — I wanted him to understand that from the top guy to the bottom guy, it didn’t matter, you still have a voice. Even though you are a walk-on, if you have something to say, you should announce that, because everybody respects you just as much as they respect me.”
Mihalich said told Cole he’s not worried abut crying Saturday — only about how long it'l take the tears to stop flowing on an afternoon in which he’ll pay tribute to a pair of 1,000-point scorers and the walk-on who combined to deliver equal impacts and form one of the most unique senior classes he’s ever coached.
“I just hope and pray that I did as much for them as they did for me,” Mihalich said. “There’s an old saying that by your pupils, you’ll be taught, if you’re a teacher. And they helped me be a better coach.”