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Mike Lopresti | | January 30, 2019

How Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich led his team to the season's longest winning streak in college basketball

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Of all the things you don’t know about Hofstra’s surging basketball program, here’s probably one: The coach is Joe Mihalich, and his mother once shared a room with Yankee Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford.

We’re probably going to have to explain that, aren’t we?

In a minute. But first, there are lots of things people don’t know about Hofstra basketball, and now might be a good time to learn. The Tennessees, Dukes and Virginias of the world should kindly clear another spot on the stage. Yeah, they’ve got the glitter and the rankings, but who among them has the nation’s longest winning streak?

That would be the Hofstra Pride, the team that hasn’t lost a basketball game since two days after Thanksgiving.

“Sometimes,” Mihalich was saying over the phone this week, “it just comes together.”

Hofstra has won 16 games in a row for its best start in 57 years, and opened up a three-game lead in the Colonial Athletic Association standings — no team in any other league has galloped so far ahead of the pack. So this is not the moment to be anonymous.

“Hofstra is known in Long Island, but I don’t think a lot of people (elsewhere) know,” junior guard Eli Pemberton said. “We’re starting to get our name out there now. More and more people are starting to see us.”

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They are, if they look at the list of best records this season. There are the Pride, at 19-3. And if they look at the surest free throw shooters in the land. There’s Hofstra, second in the nation at 79.7 percent. And if they study the top scorers in the country. There’s senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, third at 26 points a game.

“The real thing that’s going on here, is that these kids — and a lot of this is going to sound corny — really like each other, they genuinely like playing with each other,” Mihalich said. “And this is really a cliché — they really play for each other. And it’s a beautiful thing.”

His star thinks so, too. “We have a great brotherhood that’s going on around here,” Wright-Foreman said. “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”

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So here’s Hofstra 101, in 11 items.

  • Wright-Foreman, a 6-2 guard, is as reliable as tide tables. He has scored in double figures 75 games in a row, second longest active streak in the nation and 17th longest ever in Division I. He has led the team in scoring 18 times this season and 59 times in his career.

“My team believes in me to have the ball and my coach believes in me,” Wright-Foreman said. “That’s the most important part.”

Said Mihalich, “You see guys, they make a shot, they’ve got to wave to the crowd, they’ve got to put three fingers in the air, they’ve got to pound their chests. He thinks you’re supposed to make every shot.”

How about that, Wright-Foreman? “Pretty accurate.”

Anyone trying to find Wright-Foreman knows just where to start looking. “I’m a workhorse so I’m in the gym a lot, probably at weird hours of the night, people would say. Sometimes I come in here at 12 o'clock and get some good shots up.”

  • All you need is Wright-Foreman’s career average stat sheet to grasp how he is a relentless point machine — 26.0 as a senior, 24.4 as a junior, 18.1 as a sophomore and . . . wait a minute, 1.6 as a freshman?

A blip on the computer screen, or his career? “I’m a lot more patient and mature and understanding. My first year, I call it more of a learning experience,” he said.

Hofstra had a pretty good veteran team that season, so minutes were scarce. Plus, Wright-Foreman was a tad slow in developing on the defensive end. So now, people can understand that 1.6 number, right?

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"Or maybe they’ll ask, 'What the heck was the coach doing?'" Mihalich said.

  • Hofstra is not a solo act. Pemberton has long been a steady producer, and six different players not named Justin Wright-Foreman have scored at least 18 points in a game this season.

“Everybody has their roles,” Pemberton said. “Guys know that Justin is the man on the team. He’s going to lead us, but we’ve got to help him out. That was the key this year, just to make everything easier for him.”

  • Veterans, they are. The starting lineup includes seniors Wright-Foreman and Desure Buie, juniors Pemberton and Tareq Coburn, and 6-10 Jacquil Taylor, a graduate transfer from Purdue.
  • Giants, they’re not. Taylor is the only player among the top seven scorers taller than 6-5.

“It’s heart over height at the end of the day,” Pemberton said.

  • For a true ice-water-in-their-veins display, watch these guys shoot free throws at crunch time.

Wright-Foreman is 34-for-36 from the line in the last five minutes or overtime. He and fellow guard Buie are 25-for-26 in the last minute or overtime.

Takes poise and nerve. And also practice. “We have drills where we shoot a million free throws,” Wright-Foreman said.

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  • Eight days in early January proved how serious Hofstra is about winning. First came a 75-72 victory over CAA pre-season favorite Northeastern, with 42 points front Wright-Foreman, including a 34-foot winner at the buzzer. Next was a 93-90 triple overtime escape at William & Mary, with 37 points from Wright-Foreman. Then a 74-71 victory at Elon after trailing by 10.

“It gets contagious,” Mihalich said. “We’ve got these kids who genuinely have a will to win. They just don’t talk about it, they have it.”

  • Hofstra hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 2001, when the Pride were coached by a guy who would later make a headline or two at another school. You know him as Villanova’s Jay Wright.

To get Hofstra back to March after so long, well, the desire is palpable.

“It would mean everything,” Wright-Foreman said.

“It’s too early to talk about, but it is in our minds,” Pemberton said. “That would mean everything to the university and Long Island. I’m kind of a loss for words about it. We know that we can, but it is far ahead, so it’s kind of a touchy subject to talk about.”

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Mihalich understands how big a moment that would be. In 2005, he coached Niagara to its first NCAA tournament berth in 35 years. Got there twice. Came to Hofstra in 2013, and nearly made it again in 2016, when the Pride lost the CAA championship game in overtime to UNC Wilmington. That must have taken a while to get over.

“So you’re saying I’m over it?” he answered. “You never get over it. We had the ball at the end of regulation (but didn’t score) and I still remember the play we ran.”

  • The winning streak has been a blessing — drawing light to the program — more than it has been any burden of pressure. At least so far.

Pemberton:  “I would be lying if I said we don’t think about the streak. We think about it every day. We know what is at stake. But we’ve got a group of focused guys. We do love the streak and I would hate for it to end, but we could lose at any time. We have to keep that mindset, one game at a time. We’re just focused on us right now. That’s the only way we’re going to keep this streak alive.”

  • The streak will get a big test Saturday. Hofstra goes to Northeastern, where there is undoubtedly a fiery urge for vengeance after that Wright-Foreman 34-footer.

Mihalich: “Everybody thinks we’re going to lose, so that’s part of the fun, part of the charm. I’ve already told the team after (last) game, `Listen, we might as well get this out of the way right now. Everybody thinks we’re losing, everybody’s saying the streak is going to be over.’

  “We’ve kind of just taken this head-on, we’re embracing it, we’re having fun with it.”

  • Mihalich played his college ball at La Salle, which was in his neighborhood. His freshman season, the Explorers went to the NCAA tournament, led by Joe Bryant. Kobe’s dad.

Mihalich’s father Joseph was a La Salle professor, but before that, a pitcher in the Yankees farm system. His roommate was, yep, future star Whitey Ford, who would be nice enough to get out of the way when Joseph had a visitor.

“My mom used to say, `I slept in the same bed as Whitey Ford,” Joe Mihalich said.

So now you know.

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