Less than 48 hours earlier, Hofstra’s players and coaches were celebrating their CAA championship in Washington, dancing and cutting down the nets as a symbol of their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001, Jay Wright’s final season as head coach of the Long Island school.
But the singing and the shouting were a muted memory Thursday, when the somber players met with head coach Joe Mihalich after the NCAA announced it had canceled the tournament over coronavirus concerns, depriving the Pride of their well-earned date with March Madness.
“We are gutted. We are devastated. It’s like somebody ripped your heart out,” Mihalich, the former La Salle player and assistant coach, said Friday in a telephone interview.
“When I met with the team, the basic message was, ‘Listen, guys, there’s a world health crisis right now, a pandemic. The conclusion was from a lot of sporting people, whether it’s the NBA or college basketball, that we have to do our part to not make the problem worse, and that’s the reason for these decisions.’
“I told them, ‘We don’t have to completely understand and it’s OK for this to be hard to accept. For sure it can be unacceptable. But we have to understand it as best we can, deal with it as best we can, and at the same time go ahead and feel sad.’”
Mihalich, 63, who during his 22 seasons (seven at Hofstra) as a collegiate head coach led Niagara to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007, felt heartsick for all his players but particularly for his two seniors and top scorers, 5-foot-11 guard Desure Buie, the CAA tournament MVP, and 6-5 guard Eli Pemberton.
“With each passing day, this thing snowballed,” he said. “When they canceled those Power 5 tournaments, our hope became, ‘Postpone it. You’ve still got to play this thing, let’s figure out how. If it can’t be next week, let’s figure out how.’
“I guess they can’t. I’m sure they tried. If they really wanted to make it work, they could. What’s wrong with May Madness? Let’s have Selection Sunday. Let’s find out who we’re playing and where we’re going and hope this gets under control in the next month, and then we start it up again.”
Buie averaged team highs of 18.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.1 steals per game and set a program record with 140 career games played. He is working toward a master’s degree in higher education leadership and policy studies.
“He’s just a special, special person,” Mihalich said. “His story is one of the best stories in college basketball. He’s going to have his master’s, he won a prestigious academic award. He’s just incredible, the greatest kid in the world.”
Mihalich said he hears from Wright “all the time,” and felt certain his team would be going against Villanova in the first round of the NCAAs because “they love that stuff.”
However, with no tournament, Mihalich tried to lessen his players’ hurt by reminding them the final game of the season, or career in some cases, won them a championship.
“It was a night and a game,” he said, “where we climbed up the ladder that we talked about doing for seven years with me, 19 years here at Hofstra, cut down the nets, threw them around our necks, went up on the stage, and got a trophy. We can remember that last game and that’s what we’re going to do.
“We’re going to remember how great and how special this team was because one day this team is going into the Hall of Fame here, instead of just getting hung up so much on the fact that we got deprived of something, got robbed.”