SAME OLD STORY: Top-Seeded Delaware Rallies Past Hofstra Again
BALTIMORE — After leading the Delaware Blue Hens twice at halftime — yet losing twice — to Delaware this season, the Hofstra Pride was hoping that the third time would appropriately be the charm in the town known as Charm City.
But in the end, it was the same story yet again, as the top-seeded Blue Hens (23-9, 15-2 CAA) rallied from deficits of as much nine points, and 40-37, at halftime, to an 87-76 victory over eighth-seeded Hofstra (10-23, 6-12 CAA) in the quarterfinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament at Baltimore Arena on Saturday afternoon.
Delaware’s latest comeback was reminiscent of both its 86-79 home win after trailing the Pride, 41-36, at halftime, on January 8, and the Blue Hens’ ability to dig out of a 41-32 hole at intermission during their 81-77 victory at Hofstra on February 19.
This time, all but two of Delaware’s points came off the bench, led by 28 points from senior guard Davon Usher, 22 from junior guard Jarvis Threatt (who scored 18 in the second half), 15 from senior guard Devon Saddler and a dozen added by junior guard Kyle Anderson (who had 10 first-half points).
Graduate forward Zeke Upshaw led Hofstra with 23 points, but was forced to the bench during a critical second-half stretch after picking up his fourth foul on a questionable call with 14:21 remaining.
Trying to take up the slack, graduate guard Dion Nesmith scored 16 points, senior forward Stephen Nwaukoni had 13 points and a game-best 15 rebounds, and sophomore forward Jordan Allen added nine points and 10 boards.
However, without its best player, the Pride allowed the Blue Hens to double its lead from a five-point margin to what was then a game high 71-61 lead with 7:22 left, before Upshaw and returned with junior center Moussa Kone (six points, five rebounds), who also had four fouls.
Not that Delaware was feeling sorry for its former America East rival, as the Blue Hens likewise had Saddler (the league’s leading scorer, just ahead of Upshaw and Usher) and its best post player, senior forward Carl Baptiste (eight points, four rebounds, two blocks) in trouble with four fouls apiece.
Prior to that, Delaware seemed tight as Hofstra played just the opposite while jumping out to leads of 6-1, 19-12 and 26-17 just past the mid-point of the opening half.
“We had to get the jitters out in the first half and it was basically an exercise in trying to keep the game manageable,” CAA Coach of the Year Mont’e Ross said. “In the second half, I thought we were able to impose our will on the game, especially on the defensive end.”
Two free throws by Saddler capped a 15-6 spurt that tied the game, 32-32, before Upshaw made consecutive 3-pointers to give the Pride a 38-32 lead.
A 5-2 Blue Hens run sliced that margin in half by halftime and an 11-2 stretch to start the second half gave Delaware a 48-42 edge.
An Upshaw four-point play (on a 3-pointer plus a free throw) trimmed that deficit to 48-46, but less than 2½ minutes later, Upshaw was called for a foul on a play that drew little contact as Threatt drove along the left blocks after a 3-pointer by Nesmith brought Hofstra to within 51-49.
Threatt made the shot and the ensuing free throw to extend the Blue Hens’ lead to 54-49.
Head coach Joe Mihalich incredulously threw his arms up in disbelief after the call and yelled to the officials, “What did he do? He did nothing. He stood there. Amazing.”
For Upshaw, it was especially difficult to go to the bench in what would be become the final game of his college career.
“It hurt because I wanted to be in there with my team and I couldn’t. I was on the bench. So, it definitely hurt. When I came back in, I tried to do as much as I could, but there wasn’t much time left.”
After returning, Upshaw hit two free throws to cut Delaware’s advantage to 71-63, and an Allen layup made it 71-65. But an 8-2 run gave the Blue Hens the game’s largest lead, 79-67, with 3:56 left.
Making a pair of jumpers, Upshaw (who became one of the CAA’s best scorers this year after playing sparingly and totaling only 100 points over three years at Illinois State) keyed an 8-1 spurt to bring Hofstra to within 80-75, with 1:03 to go. But down, 81-75, Upshaw missed on a decent 3-point look from the left wing, and although he was bumped on the follow-through, no call was made.
Six free throws by Delaware over the final 42 seconds kept the Pride from making another threat.
While Hofstra’s effort wasn’t enough to take down the tournament’s number one seed, it drew praise from the Pride’s opposing coach.
“I give a lot of credit to Hofstra and Joe in the way those guys were prepared,” Ross said.
Mihalich reciprocated, saying, “You’ve got to give Delaware credit. I like to think we pushed them and challenged them. And they had to respond, and they did.”
Welling up with emotion, Mihalich’s thoughts then turned to players like Upshaw and Nwaukoni, even though Mihalich had only just completed his first year at Hofstra after spending the previous 15 at Niagara.
“It’s hard to say goodbye to your guys,” he said.
Later, Mihalich fought back the tears before adding particularly of Upshaw and Nesmith (who still has one year left), “When we’re eventually cutting the nets down and winning championships, we should be able to look back on this team and say they were a big part of it… to turn around a program is not an easy thing to do… and when we’re getting to the point of hopefully climbing up a ladder and cutting down some nets, we can say, ‘Don’t forget 2013-14. We didn’t have a lot to show for it in the win columns, but don’t forget Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith… [or] Stephen Nwaukoni.”
As for the place that Mihalich hopes to reach, Ross’ opportunity to accomplish the same remains very much alive this weekend. After guiding Delaware to its first CAA regular season crown this year, Ross’ Blue Hens will make their inaugural appearance in the CAA title game if on Sunday, they can get by fifth-seeded Northeastern, which upset fourth-seeded Drexel.