I'm sure you remember Christmas morning when you were really expecting to get that one present under the tree. You would progress through the gift giving ceremony, present by present, holding out hope for the next box to be the one. And yet every time you thought that you had found the correct shaped box, you'd open it and it was a pair of socks or a book.
That's exactly how I felt watching the South Dakota State-Hofstra game last night. From the outset I expected the Jackrabbits to take Hofstra to the house, and yet the Pride were able to stick like glue as the game progressed.
It was a rejuvenated Hofstra team. After suffering two straight 29-point losses to start the season, the Jackrabbits came out with a relaxed approach to the Pride, expecting a big shot or a big lead to be enough to sink them.
But Hofstra found always presented the Jackrabbits with a different Christmas present: first there was Taran Buie, the Penn State-transfer who was playing in his first game in over a year and his first as a member of the Pride, going absolutely bananas in the first half. Aside from missing a single free throw, Buie was perfect in the first 20 minutes, hitting the locker rooms with a team-leading 11 points.
When SD State grew their lead to seven on a Brayden Carlson three with 6:50 left in the first half, they assumed that it would be the present they were waiting for.
Instead, they found themselves unwrapping a ferocious Buie, who would proceed to score the next seven points for Hofstra to tie the game at 25.
The sophomore guard who only saw 15.8 minutes in his freshman year in Happy Valley was clearly embracing his opportunity in Hempstead as he attacked without thought for repercussions, and every time he led the Pride offense to a bucket he would come back with a floor-slap on defense.
This was a side of the game that Hofstra hadn't shown in the first two games: they cared. They didn't want to lose, and the ferocious debut of Buie was clearly the spark that they needed to act on the hatred of defeat.
His attitude was infectious: Jimmy Hall, Hofstra's freshman forward who played an offensively productive but meek 35 minutes against Purdue, was suddenly playing like a seasoned veteran on the boards. Every time the Jackrabbits thought that a Hofstra miss would lead to a backbreaking bucket, Hall found a way to pull down a different present from the glass and kick it out to Buie or Shaquille Stokes.
But in the second half, Hofstra was the one looking for the present under the Christmas tree.
The aforementioned Stokes, who hadn't scored at all in the first half, was all of a sudden trying to sink the Jackrabbits. He missed his first four shots, but came alive in place of Buie, scoring all nine of his points in the final 17 minutes of the game.
After a reinvigorated Stevie Mejia stretched Hofstra's lead to five with 8 minutes remaining in the game, it was time for one of the other presents we ran down the stairs expecting: South Dakota State's Nate Wolters showed up.
After spending a game displaying his fabulous game vision (to be elaborated on later), he finally decided it was time to start converting his field goal attempts. In the next seven minutes, Wolters took over for the Jackrabbits, scoring 12 of his game-high 25, including two 3-pointers in the last 1:30 to narrow the gap to one and then tie the game at 63 with 28 seconds left.
But in the end, the roles were reversed from these two squads. South Dakota State came down the stairs looking for a specific present under the trees with their name on it. Yet as the night progressed, they kept tearing open gifts that were the opposite of what they expected. And by the time they got to the final gift, it was Hofstra's Shaquille Stokes holding the box.
He opened it and found what the Jackrabbits had been searching for all night: the game-winning 3-pointer, sitting in a maelstrom of green and red gift wrap, ready for the taking.