OLEAN – Joe Mihalich had been riding the officials all afternoon Saturday when referee Andrew Marotta finally had enough midway through the second half. The veteran official turned around during a break in the action and motioned toward the Hofstra bench for the coach to simmer down.
“Andrew, Andrew, this is the best I’ve ever been,” Mihalich screamed from the sideline with a smile before turning toward the crowd inside the Reilly Center. “You guys know me. Am I right? This is the best I’ve ever been.”
Mihalich was making light of his behavior along the sideline, but he unintentionally made a valid point while guiding Hofstra to an 89-83 victory over St. Bonaventure. He has been a terrific coach for years, as Niagara remembers all too well, but this could very well be the best he’s ever been in his career.
At age 59, in his third season at Hofstra, he continued to push the right buttons in his first game in Western New York since leaving Niagara in 2013. He was in top form Saturday when rotating his big men late in a tight game, squeezing everything he could from each possession, and landing on the proper side of the scoreboard.
“When I looked at our schedule and saw Canisius and Bonaventure on there, I had a little bit of a brain freeze,” Mihalich said. “It was going back in time a bit. It’s fun when you’re in a good college basketball atmosphere.
“For those people who say ‘just another game,’ I’d be lying if I said it was. It was fun to come back here.”
At halftime, after seeing his team get outworked and trail by five, Mihalich implored his players during intermission to get tough or stay in the locker room. Sure enough, the grittiness and intensity you came to expect from his teams emerged when the game evolved into a dogfight in the final 20 minutes.
How many possessions did he alone win Saturday? It’s anybody’s guess.
I’m sure some analytics expert would provide a number, but there’s no real way to measure the value of his experience and instincts. I’m not saying he outfoxed Bona coach Mark Schmidt, another good coach, but there’s no ignoring his team scored on 11 straight possessions at one point.
The best coaches exploit mismatches and get the most from their players. It’s usually enough to win. Mihalich would be the first to say it doesn’t take a genius to put the offense in Juan’ya Green’s hands in a tight game. But it takes a good coach for Green to learn how to handle the situation.
“He puts the ball in my hands and lets me work,” Green said. “Whatever I want to do, he has trust in me. I just go out and do my best.”
Sure enough, it was two of the three former Niagara players who followed Mihalich to Hofstra who made the difference Saturday. Green scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half and finished with nine assists. Ameen Tanksley led Hofstra with 24. Together, they made 20 of 21 free throws.
Hofstra pulled away with a 16-1 run that gave it a 73-60 lead with less than seven minutes remaining. Mihalich handed controls to Green, who started with a layup. He penetrated before kicking a pass to Denton Koon for a three. He worked the two-man game with Rokas Gustys for a pair of easy buckets inside.
It was Green at his best, an extension of his coach.
“We have a unique relationship,” Mihalich said. “He’s why you coach – Juan’ya Green. You see him as a player. He’s an even better person.
“The trust and belief in each other, the communication, it’s what we try to do. When we fail, it’s when we don’t communicate enough. Juan’ya nails it on every level.”
Western New York hoops fans have fond memories of Mihalich after he spent 15 years coaching on Monteagle Ridge. He had four 20-win seasons, led Niagara to five postseason tournaments and twice reached the NCAA Tournament. He was revered across local basketball circles and beyond. His exit was a matter of time.
Hofstra, coming off a seven-win season in 2012-13, offered him twice the money and an opportunity to be near his sons. All three are within driving distance and inherited their father’s coaching gene. Joe is an assistant coach at Penn. Matt is an assistant at Hartford. Matt’s twin, Tony, is a track and cross-country coach at Iona.
Mihalich quickly turned around a struggling program at Hofstra, which was 7-25 the year before he arrived and improved to 20-14 last year. Green, Tanksley and guard Brian Bernardi followed him in what evolved into a mass exodus. Transfer rules forced them to sit out a year, so they worked out with one another.
Now, they are their top three scorers.
Hofstra, which beat Canisius in its season opener, took the floor Saturday after playing well in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. The Pride earned a five-point win over Florida State before falling to South Carolina and getting clipped, 67-66, in the consolation game against Indiana State.
The Colonial Athletic Association is a few notches down from the Atlantic 10, but Hofstra is no pushover. They didn’t show up to get pounded before St. Bonaventure played Buffalo this week. Hofstra had a familiar competitiveness and intensity and found a way to win.
It was hardly a first for Mihalich, who beat Bona eight straight times during one stretch at Niagara. The win Saturday was his fifth straight in the Reilly Center. No wonder he enjoys coming back to Olean, where he’s at his best.
“This place is great,” Mihalich said. “Good players want to play in a good atmosphere. They like the challenge of a loud crowd and a tough place to play. It’s high risk and high reward. If you get it done, you’re going to feel good about yourselves.”