BALTIMORE — Scoring 10 points on a dismal 3-for-10 shooting, including misses on all five of his 3-point attempts, Maryland native Jamall Robinson failed to produce the type of game that made him an All-CAA Rookie Team selection this season.
But with his team’s season on the line, he made his homecoming a success by following his own miss with a 3-point play that put the Hofstra Pride up for good in the opening round of the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament on Friday night.
Robinson’s second effort started a run during which eighth-seeded Hofstra (10-22, 6-11 CAA) scored the game’s last nine points, over the final 1:58, to rally past the ninth-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks, 78-70, at Baltimore Arena.
The victory completed at tri-fecta for the Pride, which beat UNCW (9-23, 3-14 CAA) on the road (69-64, on January 15) and at home (61-52, on February 8) before adding a neutral floor win over the Seahawks this season.
Thanks to its game-ending spurt, Hofstra also repeated in the second half exactly what it did in the first, by outscoring UNCW 39-35 in each frame.
Yet the Pride can’t celebrate for too long, as Hofstra will face top-seeded Delaware, in the quarterfinals at noon, on Saturday — a mere 15 hours after wrapping up its first-round win.
That doesn’t appear to be too much of a concern though, to head coach Joe Mihalich, despite playing Robinson, and his two best players — graduate students Zeke Upshaw (team-best 23 points) and Dion Nesmith (15 points) — a full 40 minutes each against UNCW.
“These guys can play right now,” Mihalich said immediately following the game. “They play 40 minutes all the time. We really try to push them in practice. The games aren’t as hard as our practices… and we do that for a purpose. Everything points to those three or four games [during the CAA tournament] in March.”
For Mihalich’s squad, that stay almost lasted for only one game, even though the Pride got off to a good start and held a slim lead for the majority of the contest.
Whereas depth-challenged Hofstra only played seven guys, with all of them scoring (including five in double figures), UNCW had a dozen players see action with only two scoring in double digits.
Although the Pride scored nine straight points to lead, 12-5, and extended that edge to 19-12, Ponder’s 14 first-half points kept the Seahawks close.
Neither team led by more than four points in the second half until Upshaw drained a left-corner 3-pointer to put Hofstra up, 57-50, with 9:04 remaining, before senior forward Stephen Nwaukoni (10 points, game-high 14 rebounds) sank the first of two free throws to push the lead to eight points.
That margin was wiped out after senior guard Chris Dixon made a 3-pointer to cap a 20-11 run that gave UNCW a 70-69 lead, with 2:27 left. However, with the Seahawks missing their final six shots, their advantage quickly vanished as the Pride followed Robinson’s big bucket with four free throws and a Nwaukoni dunk in the final seconds.
“I thought it was a heck of a basketball game,” Mihalich said a short while later. “We played good, they played good. It’s the old cliché, ‘It’s too bad somebody had to lose that game.’ And it’s no surprise. It’s the third time we played them and all three times, it could have gone either way.”
Pleased with Hofstra’s resolve down the stretch, Mihalich added, “I thought in the end, we had that ‘refuse to lose’ mentality about us.”
On the flip side, head coach Buzz Peterson lamented, “We had our chances… towards the end, we had a couple opportunities, [shots] didn’t go for us and we came up short of the defensive end. We probably had a couple calls [late, where] we came out on the short end of those; two or three of them, but that’s how basketball goes. You’ve got to live with it.”
Peterson also noted a particular miss by sophomore forward Dylan Sherwood (three points, on 1-of-7 shooting) on the possession after Robinson’s game-winner. “Dylan had that wide open three in the corner,” he said. “If that had gone down, that might have helped us out.”
Sherwood’s misfire hurt the most for the Seahawks, who after making five of their first seven 3s, missed their next 11.
Still, Peterson seemed happy with the eight 3-pointers his team made, even if they came on an inefficient 24 attempts, while admitting, “We don’t like to take a lot of those,” he said, “We like to get the inside-outs, if we can.”
As for Hofstra’s matchup with Delaware — which swept the Pride during the regular season (86-79, at home, on January 8, and 81-77, in Hempstead, New York, on February 19) – Mihalich said, “We have great respect for them. They are a potent offensive team. They can really, really score points. I don’t know what the answer is to try to keep them from scoring points. We did play well against them the first two games, but hopefully we can find a way to do that again tomorrow.”
Delaware led the CAA in scoring with 79.2 points per game before the tournament, which was 6.1 more than the next closest team (73.1 points by second-seeded Towson). Hofstra also gave up second-most points in the CAA (72.8) and ranked the same while allowing the opposition to shoot 45.4 percent from the floor.
However, don’t expect the Pride to back down from such a huge challenge, with Upshaw leading the way.
Upshaw, who scored a total of 100 points while playing sparingly at Illinois State for three years before finishing the regular season as the CAA’s second-leading scorer (19.6 points per game) and earning All-CAA Second-Team honors, was happy to extend his career for at least one more day.
“It was a huge relief,” he said of beating UNCW. “I want to keep playing and go as far as we can. So tonight was big for us and we’re excited for tomorrow.”
Remaining CAA Men’s Basketball Championship Schedule (at Baltimore Arena, Baltimore, MD):
Quarterfinals — Saturday, March 8
Game 2: #1 Delaware vs. #8 Hofstra, noon
Game 3: #4 Drexel vs. #5 Northeastern, 2:30 p.m.
Game 4: #2 Towson vs. #7 James Madison, 6 p.m.
Game 5: #3 William & Mary vs. #6 College of Charleston, 8:30 p.m.
Semifinals — Sunday, March 9
Game 6: Game 2 Winner vs. Game 3 Winner, 2:30 p.m.
Game 7: Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner, 5 p.m.
Finals — Monday, March 10
Game 8: Game 6 Winner vs. Game 7 Winner, 7 p.m.