Desure Buie’s fourth birthday was a couple weeks in the rearview mirror on March 10, 2001, when Hofstra reached the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year by beating Delaware in the America East championship game. Eli Pemberton was still a few months from celebrating his fourth birthday. Joe Mihalich had just completed his third season as the head coach at Niagara University.
In other words, for Mihalich, Buie, Pemberton and the rest of the Hofstra men’s basketball team, tonight’s CAA championship game does not carry with it the weight of 18 consecutive seasons that have ended without punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Just four. Or five. Or seven.
Or just one.
“It means everything to us to be back in this championship game,” Pemberton said Monday night after the Pride advanced to the CAA championship game with a 75-61 win over Delaware but before finding out they’d oppose defending champion Northeastern in a rematch of last year’s title game. The sixth-seeded Huskies never trailed in beating seventh-seeded Elon, 68-60.
“Just because we’re in the championship doesn’t mean we’re going to win it. We’ve just got to lock in these next 24 hours, or whatever it is, and just mentally get ready. We came up short last year. We don’t want that same thing happening again.”
Pemberton is one of seven Pride players — along with Buie, Connor Klementowicz, Tareq Coburn, Jalen Ray, Stafford Trueheart and Kevin Schutte — who was in uniform with the team 52 weeks ago Thursday, when second-seeded Northeastern raced out to a 16-point halftime lead and held off a second-half surge by top-seeded Hofstra to earn an 82-74 win.
At the time, it seemed as if the championship window might have closed for Hofstra, which lost the nation’s second-leading scorer, Justin Wright-Foreman, as well as the 1-2 big man punch of Jacquil Taylor and Dan Dwyer.
But the Pride was picked first in the preseason poll in October, and while the path to a second straight regular season title wasn’t a linear one, Hofstra lost consecutive games just once while going 14-4 in league play.
“We worked for it all year,” Pemberton said. “The ups and downs, we appreciated those. The losses to San Jose (State in the season opener Nov. 6) and that last loss to Towson (on Feb. 27, when the Tigers pulled down 24 offensive rebounds in a 76-65 win) — we learned from early loss and that shows the maturity of our guys learning from those losses to make sure we don’t do that the following game.”
A loss tonight won’t diminish the last two years for the Pride, whose 52 wins are a program record for a two-season span. It certainly won’t diminish what Buie, Pemberton and their fellow senior, the popular walk-on Klementowicz, have accomplished in their four seasons in Hempstead. They will still receive standing ovations when they return to Hofstra for games and Buie and Pemberton will be in the record books for years to come.
But this is March, the month that amplifies players, coaches and programs. Buie motioned to the rafters the week before his home finale, a wordless gesture that conveyed his understanding of how a trip to the NCAA Tournament elevates and defines a career.
It’s the month every college basketball fan circles on his or her calendar, the one in which he or she hopes to add some new T-shirts to the wardrobe and experience the euphoria of seeing the alma mater’s name appear on Selection Sunday.
And for the last 18 springs — ever since Hofstra joined the CAA — Flying Dutchmen/Pride fans have felt like Homer Simpson, walking past a mis-marked calendar and muttering about the lousy Smarch weather while watching another CAA team get the league’s moment (or, in two cases, many moments) in the national spotlight.
There have been a handful of agonizing near-misses for Hofstra, including two earlier losses in the CAA championship game in 2006 and 2016 as well as a last-second double-overtime loss to William & Mary in 2015. The 2006 team’s championship game heartbreak was doubled six days later, when the Pride, with a top-30 RPI, didn’t receive an at-large bid while CAA rival George Mason, whom Hofstra beat twice in a span of 10 days late in the season, got in and then made it all the way to the Final Four.
The Pride will have enough to ponder today and tonight without also shouldering the burden of a fan base starved to watch their team take the dance floor. The memories of players and fans only go back to last year, or to 2016 for Buie — who played 19 minutes as a freshman reserve in the 80-73 overtime loss to UNC Wilmington — as well as the seventh-year head coach Mihalich and his assistants.
Realizing the goal of every player and coach will require capitalizing on a rare second chance and winning a third difficult game in a row. Hofstra is the 12th team to reach the CAA championship game the year after losing in the finals. The previous 11 squads went 9-2 in the second try (James Madison lost consecutive title games in 1992 and 1993 before winning it all in 1994). The championship game rematch is just the third in CAA history. Navy (1985 over Richmond) and Old Dominion (1995 over James Madison) each lost the first game and won the rematch.
Hofstra, which scored just 25 first-half points in a 61-43 win over Drexel in Sunday’s quarterfinals, led for the final 29-plus minutes Monday but saw a 22-point second half lead cut to eight by Delaware’s swarming, physical and relentless full-court press.
“I say it all the time: This league is such a great basketball league,” Mihalich said. “And tonight it was exactly what I’m talking about. Just two teams battling it out. Nobody quitting. Tough, tough win. Hard-earned win. And we beat a very good team, so we’re proud of it. We’re ecstatic to be one of the two teams left.”
And tonight, exactly 19 years after the program most recently tasted the euphoria March can provide, the Pride will have a chance to deliver a defining moment for the school, one fans have waited almost two decades to experience again and would cherish far more than they might have the 2000 or 2001 titles (or the 1976 and 1977 East Coast Conference championships).
The opportunity to win a conference championship is what occupies the daydreams during the slow days at work, generates the jealousy while watching teams celebrate the realization of their March Madness dreams and validates everything they’ve experienced beforehand.
In that regard, the fans that trekked down I-95 over the weekend or this morning and those tuning in around the nation will have everything in common today and tonight with the men on the floor.
“The feeling last year, being in the championship game, it was everything,” Ray said. “And we didn’t complete our mission. So that was our goal for the season.
“And we have one more goal to finish.”