HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — It’s said that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Trying to shed the memories of last year’s miserable season that included a mere six Division I wins and as many player arrests for off-court incidents, the Hofstra Pride men’s basketball team has a new look in just about every way possible this season — an entire new coaching staff, a largely overhauled roster, and even redesigned uniforms that include a return to a new alternate version of the yellow threads Hofstra last wore in the Physical Fitness Center, during the 1990s.
Yet while opening its 15th season next door, in the Mack Sports Complex, the Pride (0-1) began its latest era on Friday night, under head coach Joe Mihalich, the same way it started its final season with departed coach Mo Cassara, 364 days earlier — with a loss to the Monmouth Hawks (1-0).
A few things were different in that respect, however. A year ago, Monmouth embarrassed Hofstra at home, by 29 points. This time, the Pride was poised to win on its home floor, after building a 13-point lead early in the second half and remaining ahead by 11 points with a little over 10 minutes left.
But the Hawks made sure of a repeat ending with a game-deciding 35-16 surge, to win, 88-84, in front of a crowd of 2,063.
Everything that Hofstra did well was effectively countered by Monmouth.
In the opening half, the Pride shot 48.6 percent (17-for-35) from the field and held the Hawks to 36.1 percent (13-for-36) shooting. Yet in the second half, it was Monmouth’s turn to shoot 17-for-35 while allowing Hofstra to make just 35.5 percent (11-for-31) of its shots.
At the foul line, the Pride went a decent 19-for-27 (70.4 percent), but that was nearly wiped out by the Hawks’ 18-of-27 (66.7 percent) foul shooting.
Meanwhile, a team-high 22 points from Zeke Upshaw, a graduate student from Illinois State, was offset by the same scoring output from junior guard Deon Jones.
Freshman guard Chris Jenkins added 17 points for Hofstra, but Monmouth freshman guard Josh James answered with 19 points.
And while junior center Moussa Kone and graduate student point guard Dion Nesmith each had 10 points, along with eight more from freshman forward Jamall Robinson, the Hawks responded with 13 points from junior guard Nicholas Andrew, 11 points from freshman guard Justin Robinson and 10 points from junior guard Max DiLeo.
Leading, 21-17, a little past the midpoint of the opening half, the Pride used a 10-2 run to open a 31-19 cushion on a thunderous follow-up dunk by sophomore forward Darren Payen (four points, two rebounds, in three minutes), before settling for a 45-36 halftime lead.
By then, Jenkins was leading all scorers with 14 points after making 5 of 7 shots, including 4 of 6 shots from behind the arc.
However, he missed 6 of 7 shots in the second half, including five of his six 3-point tries, as Monmouth keyed on stopping him.
“What that should have done is open it up for other people to make some plays, and we didn’t take advantage of that,” said Mihalich, who comes to Hofstra and the CAA after 15 years as a head coach at Niagara.
During his time there, Mihalich reached the NCAA tournament twice and the NIT three times out of the MAAC, while being named that league’s Coach of the Year three times, including last year.
Eager to get the next chapter of his coaching career underway, Mihalich — known for encouraging an up-tempo style with a focus on scoring, and less so on defense — surprisingly pointed to his new team’s inability to make stops or get rebounds in the final minutes.
“In the game of basketball, you get what you deserve,” he said. “And we didn’t deserve to win, the way we played. If we know anything, we know this: we can’t give up 88 points to anybody and win basketball games… when it was time to get really, really tough, we didn’t do it. When it was time to get a defensive stop, when it was time to get a rebound, we didn’t do it, and to their credit, they did. So, shame on us for letting that happen… they only had 19 offensive rebounds? It seemed like they had 50.”
Perhaps one key mistake that Mihalich made in that regard was in benching his leading rebounder, senior forward Stephen Nwaukoni (eight points, game-high 13 rebounds), with the Pride down 69-67, and 5:39 to go, and not inserting him back into the game until Hofstra was trailing 85-78, with 18.7 seconds left — even though Nwaukoni was never in any sort of foul trouble, as the only Pride player not to commit a foul.
Mihalich explained his thinking, saying, “We were having trouble scoring and Moussa did make a couple baskets down the stretch… just a question of trying to get a few more points on the board at the end.”
For a while, that made sense, as a dunk and a jumper by Kone turned a 73-72 deficit (following a 22-10 Monmouth spurt) into a 75-72 Hofstra lead.
But after a 3-pointer by Nicholas tied the game, offensive boards on consecutive Hawks possessions led to Robinson making a layup and draining a 3-pointer to put Monmouth up for good, 80-75, with 2:08 to play.
Two free throws by Kone made it a one possession game, but the Hawks scored six of the next seven points to put the game away.
One area in which the Pride caught some bad luck was with Upshaw (31 minutes) and Nesmith (36 minutes) — who sat on either side of Mihalich at his first Hofstra post-game conference — each having to fight through cramp issues as Monmouth rallied and took ultimately took control.
“I like sitting next to these guys, but not during the game,” said Mihalich, half-jokingly.
“That was kind of disappointing,” said Upshaw. “I feel like I let my teammates down. I kept trying to get back out there and I just kept cramping up.”
Admitting that the early part of the season will continue to be a work in progress for a while, Mihalich said, “We had some combinations out there tonight… [that] if you had told me two weeks ago, we’d have this combination out there, I would have said, ‘Wow!'”
Frustrated as much for those rooting for the Pride as he was for losing his first game as a Hofstra coach, Mihalich said, “It just makes the loss sting even more… we appreciate [the Lion’s Den student section] so much… we really do play for them… for the students, our great alums, and fans, and season ticket holders, and it just makes it sting even more that they come out and support us like that [and] we couldn’t pay them back with a win.”
Another chance to do that will come soon, though, when the Pride hosts its second straight New Jersey school, in Farleigh Dickinson’s season opener, on Sunday.
Quotes and game information courtesy of Jonathan Wagner, while covering the Monmouth Hawks-Hofstra Pride men’s basketball game, for New York Sports Day, at the Mack Sports Complex, in Hempstead, New York, on November 8, 2013.