As the sun rose over Washington, D.C. on March 10, 2020, the only certainty about the outcome of the night’s biggest basketball game in town was the reverberations of the Hofstra-Northeastern clash would still be felt whenever the two teams played next.
The CAA championship game between the two rivals marked their 34th game since Northeastern joined the league prior to the 2005-06 season. Northeastern held a 17-16 edge in those games, during which the Huskies outscored the Pride 2,304-2,222 — an average of 2.5 points per game.
The previous five games between the teams included three Hofstra wins — two at the buzzer and a third requiring a 16-point comeback — and two notable Northeastern wins: One that snapped the Pride’s 16-game winning streak on Feb. 2, 2019, and an 82-73 win 39 days later in the CAA championship game.
While Hofstra entered the 2020 tournament as the top seed and Northeastern the sixth seed, the most common pre-tournament simulations at KenPom.com yielded a championship game rematch. Few observers were surprised it happened, nor that KenPom.com installed the Pride as a two-point favorite — a virtual toss-up on a neutral court filled with storylines guaranteed to stoke an already vibrant rivalry.
Hofstra’s 70-61 win embodied the terrific nail-biting intensity that comes with a mid-major championship game, where there’s no at-large bid awaiting the losing team, and served as an example of the best sports can offer: Two teams competing at a high level while sharing a familiarity with and respect for one another.
The title game resonated when Hofstra and Northeastern opposed each other again Thursday and Saturday. But the echoes were less a reminder of what happened March 10 and more about everything that’s transpired since.
Within 48 hours of the final buzzer, a classic title game was rendered a relic of a bygone time by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and the suspension of pro sports. Ten months later, with the country trying to navigate its way through the longest and most vicious public health crisis in a century, March 10 stands as the last night of normal and a reminder of a simpler time that remains beyond recognition.
“It would be different if we’d gone to the NCAA Tournament, you play a game there and maybe you remember that experience a little bit more,” said acting Hofstra head coach Mike Farrelly, who was the Pride’s top assistant under Joe Mihalich last season. “That being the last vivid memory…with everything else that we’ve gone through, you hold on to that as the positive among all the other craziness and madness that’s gone on over the last nine months.”
Athletes, coaches, and sports executives are all accustomed to maintaining tunnel vision, especially with a chance to play for a championship on the horizon. But there was no escaping the growing awareness about the coronavirus as teams began preparing for the tournament.
“Certainly, going into the tournament in Washington, D.C., we were all very concerned,” CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio said.
The concern trickled its way into the offices of head coaches accustomed to spending the final few days before a tournament immersed in film.
“My (basketball) ops guy came out and says, ‘There’s talk about if this coronavirus stuff were to cancel the conference tournament, what would that mean?’” Delaware head coach Martin Inglesby said. “I looked at him like, ‘Cancel the tournament? You’re crazy. There’s no way that would ever happen.’”
Other than the omnipresent hand-sanitizing stations at the Entertainment & Sports Arena as well as the hotels housing the teams, the first three rounds of the CAA Tournament were played without any real reminders of the potential craziest case scenario.
But on Tuesday morning, Hofstra athletic director Rick Cole joined the Pride at breakfast and said campus could shut down. In addition to polishing off the game plan for Northeastern, Farrelly said he and the Pride’s staff were also trying “…to figure out what we’ll do if we’re going home tonight. Are we going home tomorrow, all that? Are we just bringing them back to stay in another hotel if they can’t get back to their rooms? So that was kind of like, OK, now it’s life-altering.”
Shortly before noon, the college basketball landscape received its first seismic shock of the week when the Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s tournaments and awarded the automatic bids to the regular-season champions, Yale and Princeton, respectively.
It was impossible for the players and staffs preparing for the CAA championship to avoid hearing the Ivy League news. But the hours before opening tip were focused on the title game and filled with confidence and anticipation for Hofstra and Northeastern, with each team believing it was destined to write a feel-good ending.
With three regular-season championships in seven seasons, Mihalich’s rebuild at Hofstra was an undeniable success regardless of what happened in his third title game at the helm. But everyone understood the validation that would come with the Pride’s first CAA championship and the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2001 — especially if that trip was clinched by beating Northeastern.
“I think it got our guys’ attention a little bit more of like, 'Hey, we were in this situation last year against them, let’s be ready to go, let’s come out with energy in the first half,' unlike what we did (in falling behind by 18 points in the 2019 title game),” Farrelly said.
Northeastern displayed its championship pedigree by bouncing back from a regular season filled with narrow losses — the Huskies were the ninth-unluckiest team in the country, per KenPom.com, after losing 11 games by seven points or fewer, including eight league games by five points or fewer — by trailing for just 48 seconds combined in quarterfinal and semifinal wins over Towson and Elon.
“The amount of close games we had — obviously we lost, but they were positive in a way because we were able to kind of come together and just be like, ‘We’re a great team, we know we’re a great team we know we can beat anyone,’” Northeastern guard Bolden Brace said. “And when it came to that CAA Tournament, I think we were locked in and ready to go.”
A slow start — the teams combined to miss their first eight shots before Northeastern took a pair of eight-point leads — evolved into a chess match between Mihalich and Huskies head coach Bill Coen and a slugfest between the 10 players on the court.
Mihalich, a staunch proponent of zone defense, finally had the personnel to play it to near-perfection with five swarming players rarely caught out of position for the shot clock-beating 3-pointers that haunted Hofstra in previous seasons. The Pride limited Drexel and Delaware to 15.6 percent shooting from 3-point land (7-for-45) in the first two tournament games.
Who better to try and find holes in a sound defensive scheme than Coen, whose offenses are predicated on patience and ball movement? The Huskies hit five 3-pointers in the first half — one apiece by five different players.
“(Shaq) Walters, he was even splashing 3s,” Hofstra guard Eli Pemberton said of the Huskies’ junior guard, who entered the game with 15 3-pointers. “And that wasn’t on the scouting report, either. Those guys came ready to play for a championship and you knew it was going to be a war.”
The two teams were separated by no more than five points during a 23-minute stretch in which there were six ties and an equal sense of dread building on both sidelines.
“We had stretches where we were up and had chances to take the lead at the end, but looking back at the game, it just felt like they kind of had the game,” Brace said.
Hofstra fell behind by more than a possession twice in the second half— on a half-opening 3-pointer by Brace, a regular long-distance weapon for the Huskies, and the first 3-pointer by 6-foot-5 center Maxime Boursiquot since Jan. 4, which extended Northeastern’s lead to 45-41 with 9:20 left.
“It was kind of those, ‘Oh (no), we might not win (moments),’” Farrelly said. “He takes that 3 and you’re like, ‘Oh boy, this might be happening again.’”
Pemberton and Brace traded 3-pointers before Hofstra mounted an 8-0 run in which Jalen Ray hit back-to-back 3-pointers, the first of which gave the Pride the lead for good. Brace and Jason Strong missed potential go-ahead 3-pointers for Northeastern just before the under-4 media timeout.
Once play resumed, Desure Buie began a charge towards Most Outstanding Player honors by fueling an 8-0 run in which he hit a jumper and forced a Brace turnover that led to two Ray free throws before converting a traditional 3-point play. Hofstra never led by fewer than seven the rest of the way.
“I remember Eli Pemberton and I had a little confrontation within the game and I remember looking up and seeing his whole family up there behind the (bench) with all the other Hofstra family members, and I kind of just felt like at that point, he deserved it and Desure deserved it and Jalen Ray and all those guys,” Brace said. “I think I had a point in the game where I just flipped the switch at the end and I was like, 'Man, those guys are just such a good team. They’re really deserving.'”
Brace and the rest of Northeastern’s starters were pulled following the first of two Buie free throws with 18.7 seconds left — a poignant gesture by Coen that gave he and the Huskies an opportunity to appreciate the journey they’d experienced while acknowledging the imminent changing of the guard and giving Hofstra a chance to begin its celebration.
“You just want to respect the game, respect the moment and respect your opponent,” Coen said. “I have great respect for coach Mihalich and I consider us pretty good friends. I know how hard it is to do and he did it. I wanted to give him a moment to kind of just soak it in.”
As Brace walked off the court, he exchanged slaps on the back with Buie, one champion passing the baton to another.
“I remember just wanting to acknowledge the fact that he had done it and gotten to that point,” said Brace, who also appreciated the progression Hofstra’s win represented. Northeastern won the 2019 title after falling to Charleston in overtime in the 2018 championship game.
“It felt scripted for sure the last three years, with Charleston winning it and the Hofstra winning,” Brace said. “It was just a perfect ending, even though we lost.”
Farrelly said he didn’t notice Coen pulling the starters until assistant coach Colin Curtin hugged him from behind and yelled, “We did it!” Mihalich pulled Pemberton as the Northeastern starters strolled along their sideline. After Pemberton pounded his chest and hugged Mihalich, Buie sank his second free throw and walked off into a warm embrace with Mihalich.
After the buzzer, the teams proceeded through an unusually long handshake line, one filled with hugs and exchanges that went beyond the usual cursory pleasantries.
“After four years, you learn to appreciate guys like that,” Pemberton said. “For us to compete like that, at such a high level and seeing them grow year after year, you have no choice but to respect all of those guys. They’re winners. They’re champions.”
The post-title game aftermath unfolded in normal fashion 12 hours or so. The Huskies began adjusting to the screeching fashion in which a season ends by returning to their hotel, checking out of their hotel by 6 AM the next morning and getting home by noon.
After a lengthy celebration on the arena floor with dozens of Hofstra fans, the Pride continued celebrating at the hotel before bussing home early Wednesday. But the trip up I-95 was filled with an impending sense of doom that built with each mile.
“Everybody was talking about it the whole time,” Pemberton said. “We saw (a story) in D.C, one of the preachers at one of the churches had coronavirus and shook like 400 people’s hands. And we were like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Hours after the Pride arrived on campus, the NBA season was suspended due to Rudy Gobert testing positive for the coronavirus. The NCAA Tournament was officially canceled shortly after 4 PM the following day, which was followed by the CAA announcing a referee who officiated a tournament game had tested positive.
“I think it set the tone for a lot of the guys, set the tone for myself for the rest of my career, never taking the game for granted and playing every game as if it might be your last,” Pemberton said. “Because that was the last game of my college career and I didn’t even know it.”
The shutting down of campuses nationwide provided Northeastern’s players a loss less tangible than the one endured by Hofstra and the 10 other teams that clinched NCAA Tournament berths, but a no less profound one.
Brace said he looked forward to the final few weeks of college life with his teammates and the chance to “…just kind of hang out and just get to experience normal life without basketball” and getting some closure on his career. But the title game loss was the last time the Huskies were able to gather as a team.
“It’s hard to end like that,” Brace said last week from the Netherlands, where he is playing for the Den Helder Suns. “I might even say that’s why I’m here right now playing is a result of just not getting that experience that last final team chemistry.”
In some comfortably familiar ways, Hofstra and Northeastern picked up where they left off last Thursday. The early-season battle for first place — both teams entered 2-0 in CAA play — elicited chuckles from Farrelly and Huskies assistant coach Chris Markwood when they chatted beforehand.
“I said, ‘Can you guys stink one of these years? It’d be nice to go into this game and Northeastern’s just not very good,'” Farrelly said. “He goes, ‘Mike, what about you guys? When are you going to stink?’”
Northeastern’s eventful sweep included plenty of ebbs and flows. On Thursday, host Hofstra led by 19 points in the second half but lost the opener, 81-78, in overtime, when Walters hit two of his career-high four 3-pointers in the extra session. The Pride overcame a 12-point deficit with a 19-0 spanning the halves Saturday before the Huskies ended on a 37-19 run to earn a 67-56 victory.
Following Thursday’s game, Hofstra center Isaac Kante acknowledged there was plenty of spirited trash talk going on between the teams. In the second half Saturday, cameras captured the Pride’s sophomore point guard, Caleb Burgess, jawing with his Northeastern counterpart, sophomore Tyson Walker. In his postgame press conference, Farrelly suggested the two teams haven’t seen the last of each other this season.
But there were also constant reminders of how much has changed in so many ways since March 10. Farrelly strolled the Hofstra sidelines instead of Mihalich, who has been on medical leave since August.
The games were played two days apart instead of the usual two or more weeks. They were played in empty arenas, with the Hofstra tilt starting at 5 PM so that both teams could get as much rest as possible before playing Saturday at noon in Boston.
There were no postgame handshakes, just the coaches waving to one another before taking their teams to their locker rooms. And Northeastern hosted the game at Cabot Center instead of the Huskies’ usual home, Matthews Arena, which is only housing Northeastern’s hockey teams this season because it’s too risky to play hockey and basketball in the facility on the same day.
“It’s really strange to go back and watch games with people in the stands, or bench chairs not separated,” Coen said. “It’s certainly changed everything, every way you’re thinking about things, from travel to practice to how your team meals (are held), celebrations — everything.”
For those on the floor or in attendance at the Entertainment & Sports Arena on March 10, the echoes from the last night of normal will ring every time Hofstra and Northeastern oppose one another — which might be soon, as Farrelly surmised, but in an unusual fashion that will serve as yet another reminder of how much has changed.
The CAA is open to the possibility teams could play each other three or more times because other programs are sidelined due to coronavirus pauses, which means Hofstra and Northeastern could meet at least once more before the conference tournament is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C
“I remember having a conversation with my wife and kids,” D’Antonio said. “My wife made the statement, ‘We’re going to be wearing masks for a long time.’ And I think one of my kids said, ‘Forever.’ My wife said, ‘Well, maybe not forever. But this is probably going to go on for a little while.
“You have those little bits of conversation and you step away and you say, ‘Wow, things are drastically different than they were on March 10.’”
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.