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Hofstra's special run ends with CAA title

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For the first time since 2001, Hofstra qualified for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

However, two days after the Pride defeated Northeastern, 70-61, to capture the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament and celebrated by cutting down the nets at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., March Madness became March sadness.

Due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), on March 12 NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the 2020 Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.

“This decision was based on the evolving public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a statement.

The announcement came on the same day the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball announced their respective seasons would postpone indefinitely. The National Basketball Association did so March 10 when one of its players, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, tested positive for coronavirus.

“Nobody wanted to believe the decision to cancel the tournament was true,” Hofstra men’s basketball head coach Joe Mihalich said. “Telling the guys was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Hofstra won 12 of its last 13 games and finished one win shy of the program single-season record for wins set last season. “It was a magical season with a special, special group of people,” Mihalich said. “Seriously, look up the word champions in the dictionary and a picture of our team would be there. Not just because of their talent, but their character, attitude ad effort.”

In the CAA title game, senior Eli Pemberton scored 12 of his 19 points in the second half and the Pride rallied to avenge a loss to Northeastern in last year’s championship game. Senior Desure Buie scored a game-high 20 points and was named the tournament's most outstanding player. Junior Jalen Ray scored 17 points, and sophomore Isaac Kante grabbed 15 rebounds for the top-seeded Pride, which finished 28-6. It defeated Drexel in the quarterfinals and eliminated Delaware in the semis.

“Cutting down the nets was a dream come true,” said Mihalich, who guided Niagara University to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007. “I believe this was without a doubt one of the top five teams Hofstra’s ever had.”

The Pride, which also won the CAA regular-season title for a second straight season with 14 wins against just 4 losses, trailed Northeastern in the tournament final at halftime. Hofstra shot just 10-for-34 in the first half but used a 17-4 run to pull away late. Ray hit a go-ahead-to-stay trey with 6:54 remaining for a 49-48 lead. Mihalich’s team held conference leading scorer Jordan Roland to just 11 points. A large disparity at the foul line helped — the Pride made 16 of 17 free throws, while Northeastern hit 1 of 2.

For the season, Buie averaged 18.2 points per game, had 200 assists and 69 steals and shot 84.8 percent from the foul line. Pemberton averaged 17.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and was an 85.4 percent free throw shooter.

“Those guys are two of our all-time greats,” Mihalich said. “On top of what they gave us every night in terms of numbers, their leadership was off the charts.”

Hofstra remains in search of its first NCAA Tournament victory. The 2000-01 squad lost to UCLA in the first round, 61-48.