This is guest post by Jerry Beach, follow him on twitter @defiantlydutch.
BALTIMORE—On Sunday, the Hofstra men’s basketball team took a next step one year in the making. Tonight, the Pride will try to take another step the program has been waiting to make for 15 seasons.
Denton Koon’s layup with 8.5 seconds remaining snapped a tie Sunday, when top-seeded Hofstra edged fifth-seeded William & Mary, 70-67, in an instant classic of a CAA semifinal at Royal Farms Arena.
The victory came on the same court and in the same round in which the Pride’s 2014-15 season ended with a 92-91, double overtime loss to William & Mary.”
“Let me get this out of the way,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said in opening his postgame press conference. “Yes. The answer is yes. We thought about this game for 363 days.
“Yes, it was a tough loss last year. Heartbreaking loss that stays with you. It’s this profession. It’s what you sign up for. The great wins, the tough losses.
“So yeah. We thought about it for a year. We were glad to have a chance to make up for it.”
With the win, Hofstra advances to the championship game, where it will face second-seeded UNC Wilmington tonight at 7 p.m. It is only the second CAA title game appearance for Hofstra and its first since 2006, when the Pride fell to UNC Wilmington. Hofstra has not made the NCAA tournament since 2001, its final season in America East.
Tonight’s game will have quite a standard to meet after the Hofstra-William & Mary semifinal lived up to expectations in every way. It was even more closely contested than last year’s clash, when the Tribe blew a 10-point first half lead and the Pride squandered a nine-point lead in the final five minutes of regulation. The biggest lead Sunday was six points and the two teams were separated by more than four points just once in the second half.
“I thought last year’s game was probably a better-played game by both teams,” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said. “I thought this game was a slugfest.”
The tone was set just 66 seconds after the opening tip, when Tribe forward Terry Tarpey was issued a flagrant one after a hard foul on Pride center Rokas Gustys and a subsequent takedown of the 6’9 double-double machine. Gustys writhed around in pain for a few seconds but stood up on his own and walked without assistance to the Hofstra bench.
Mihalich and William & Mary coach Tony Shaver, whose relationship is decidedly of the strained variety, yelled at each other as the referees tried figuring out how to discipline Tarpey.
The chaotic beginning seemed to impact both teams, who combined for 21 turnovers in the first half. The Tribe carried a 34-30 lead into the locker room after shutting down Gustys, who was collapsed upon down low and didn’t take a shot in 19 minutes, and neutralizing CAA Player of the Year Juan’ya Green, who was greeted by double teams at the top of the key and finished with just four first half points on 1-5 shooting.
“The pace was theirs,” Mihalich said. “We just had trouble offensively. It felt we didn’t get into a flow.”
William & Mary continued to set the pace in the second half, when Green took just two shots in the first 14 minutes and Gustys (two points, 13 rebounds) drew three fouls in the first 4:55 and picked up his fourth foul with 7:50 remaining.
But the Pride hung around thanks to a small lineup in which Koon operated as the “5” as well as guard Ameen Tanksley, whose 23 points were his most in a CAA game this year. He had seven points in a 19-9 run that turned a 50-46 deficit into a 65-59 advantage with 4:27 left.
“When you try to take one thing away, it leads to other things opening,” Shaver said.
The Tribe, which trailed 68-59 with 4:47 left in regulation last season, threatened to repeat history during an 8-0 run that lasted just 72 seconds. After the teams traded empty trips—a missed 3-pointer by the Tribe’s Greg Malinowski (22 points) would have extended the lead to five—Green tied the game with a pair of free throws with 1:48 left.
Another exchange of empty trips set up the winning possession. Green dribbled for several seconds at the top of the key Koon broke free under the basket. Green then drove but dished to Koon as Tarpey closed in. Koon dribbled once and hit a layup with two seconds left on the shot clock.
The sequence evoked memories of last season, when CAA Player of the Year Marcus Thornton passed to Daniel Dixon for the game-winning 3-pointer.
William & Mary raced up court without calling a timeout but David Cohn’s NBA-range 3-pointer from the top of the key bounced off the back rim. Tanksley pulled down the rebound and gave the Tribe one more chance by hitting one of two free throws, but Tarpey’s pass from underneath the Hofstra basket with 1.2 seconds left ticked off the hands of Connor Burchfield as time expired.
“Just because we won that game, I’m still going to think about that loss last year,” Mihalich said. “It was a heartbreak, it was disappointing for these guys who last year deserved to be in a championship game and couldn’t quite get there. And this year, they do. They get to be there. It’s euphoria, as opposed to whatever the opposite of euphoria is. I don’t have my thesaurus.
“But we’ve still got one game to go.”