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Hofstra gets left out again - In NIT, falls short of MSG

By DARREN EVERSON
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Aurimas Kieza takes it hard as Hofstra adds to NCAA snub with NIT loss at home.

Hofstra will always believe it should have made the NCAA Tournament. It just will never be able to say it was the best team that did not qualify.

Hofstra's run through the NIT ended in surprising, disappointing fashion last night - at home, where the Pride had the nation's second-longest winning streak, and to a conference rival it had beaten twice. Hofstra lost to Old Dominion, 61-51, in the quarterfinals, one game short of the semifinals at the Garden.

In the week and a half since being snubbed on Selection Sunday, Hofstra (26-7) had been validating its NCAA case. The Pride beat Nebraska and St. Joseph's, while George Mason - another league foe Hofstra beat twice - was proving the Colonial Athletic Association's worth in the big tournament.

"I'm going to go to my grave believing we belonged in that tournament," coach Tom Pecora said. As a consolation, Hofstra was anticipating playing at the Garden and enjoying the sympathetic local media attention. But Old Dominion - the last team to win at Hofstra - had its own agenda.

The Monarchs (24-9) stayed close early, then pulled ahead late as Hofstra shot 24% in the second half. Valdas Vasylius' three-point play with 3:44 left put ODU up 51-47 and ultimately was the death knell for Hofstra's 21-game home winning streak, which was second only to Gonzaga's 40-gamer. ODU will face Michigan Tuesday in the NIT semis.


"It's like we had dinner, but we don't get to have dessert," Pecora said. "Going to the Garden would've been a great piece of pie."


Still, for a school so disappointed by being left out of the tournament, Hofstra continued to keep a positive outlook. Hofstra Arena was sold out, with 5,124 in attendance. While NIT entrants often suffer from apathy - such as Maryland, which lost listlessly after initially intending to decline its invitation - the Pride did not.


This is not to say, though, that anyone associated with Hofstra now agrees with the selection committee's decision. Not at all.


"Reasonable people can disagree," said Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association. "And I will forever disagree." Yeager said he would seek answers from George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor, who was on the selection committee.


Here's the Hofstra case: the Pride was ranked 30th in the RPI, the second-highest team left out of the tournament (Missouri State was 21st). Indiana - a No. 6 seed in the NCAAs - was 34th. George Mason lost twice to Hofstra, and it got a bid. Seventeen teams with inferior RPIs did too.


Now, the case against Hofstra: the RPI isn't everything. The Pride's schedule strength was rated 129th in the nation, and its nonconference schedule strength was a subterranean 281st out of 334 teams. Pecora said next season's schedule will be tougher, though not just because of the NCAA snub. After going 8-21 in his second season (2002-03), Pecora said he simply needed wins.


But now Hofstra has had two straight 20-win seasons, finding its footing after its 2001 graduation from the America East. This postseason appearance was another step forward - although not as big as it might have been.


"After helping these kids get an education, my next-most important job is getting the university's name out there," Pecora said, "and the NCAA Tournament does a great job of that."
 
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