Had Eli Pemberton not busted out for the biggest debut by a Hofstra freshman in more than a decade on Nov. 11, 2016, the whole world might know him as his friends and family in Connecticut know him, or as Joe Mihalich refers to him in press conferences and other public settings.
“People in Connecticut call me Elijah,” Pemberton said this week. “They don’t know where (Eli) came from.”
But precedent on Long Island was set once Pemberton was referred to as Eli while scoring those 20 points — the most by a Hofstra freshman in his debut since Antoine Agudio scored 20 points on Nov. 21, 2004 — to lead the Flying Dutchmen to a 74-72 win over Coppin State.
“I remember (SID) Steve (Gorchov), he was like ‘Do you prefer Eli or Elijah?’” Pemberton said. “I was just like ‘Keep it Eli, keep it Eli.’ Don’t change anything now. Just worked out, don’t change it after that first game.”
The switch from Elijah to Eli served as a symbol of the start of the college maturation process for Pemberton, who has thrived away from home after choosing Hofstra over the more than 30 Division I offers he had coming out of Cheshire Academy, where he attended prep school after graduating high school in 2015.
Pemberton’s 1,885 points are the ninth-most in school history. With a win over James Madison or a loss by William & Mary today, Pemberton will also join a select club of 23 Hofstra players who have been a part of back-to-back regular season conference champions.
And a trip to the CAA finals will ensure he plays more games for the Flying Dutchmen than anyone other than teammate Desure Buie, who was Pemberton’s host during an on-campus visit in 2015-16 that convinced Pemberton Hofstra’s low-key atmosphere was the one best-suited for him.
“There was just something different here,” Pemberton said. “You know, a lot of official visits, they take you out. Sometimes you go party with the team. I’m not much of a going out person and Desure, I knew him, I already played AAU with him. He’s all ‘What do you want to do tonight?’ I was like ‘Honestly, bro, it doesn’t matter.’ He’s like ‘You want to go to the gym?’ Went to the gym. We were here from, I think, 11:30 to 3 AM, just shooting. We played H-O-R-S-E and honestly, three-and-a-half hours go by right here. And I was just like you know what, this is where I want to grow. I saw where everybody’s focus was. They kind of made my decision easier.”
Pemberton opened his career with five straight double-digit scoring efforts, the longest season-opening streak by a freshman since Agudio, who went on to graduate as the Dutchmen’s all-time leading scorer. The 122 starts by Pemberton are the second-most in program history behind only Charles Jenkins, who broke Agudio’s all-time scoring record in 2011.
But the ascension has not been without turbulence for Pemberton, who has endured extended slumps in all four of his seasons. Pemberton scored in single digits in 10 games as a freshman and had three back-to-back stretches in which he was held below 10 points. He ended December 2017 with a four-game stretch in which he shot 31.4 percent (11-for-35) from the floor. As a junior, Pemberton was held in single digits in consecutive games in December and February before being held to two points in the NIT loss to North Carolina State.
Pemberton went through a six-game stretch from Dec. 30 through Jan. 18 in which he was held below 10 points three times, including a two-point effort against Charleston on Jan. 18.
“Every year of my career, I always go through a little spurt of bad games, and this year my goal was to not do that,” Pemberton said. “It’s just an athlete thing. Sometimes, athletes get in their heads.”
The senior slump led to a meeting with Mihalich in which the coach implored Pemberton to look at his body of work as well as the one thing he’d yet to accomplish.
“I basically just said ‘Listen, you are already going down as one of the all-time greats at Hofstra,’” Mihalich said. “You’re going to score close to 2,000 points. You’re going to be in the top 10 all-time leading scorers. (It’ll) be a while before somebody passes you. You’re winning all these games. The only thing you haven’t done is climb up a ladder. So you just need to take a deep breath, enjoy your senior year and just go play as hard as you possibly can and have fun. And he did.”
It wasn’t the first time Pemberton was on the other end of a stern talking-to. Pemberton said he was quiet as a high schooler and reluctant to speak up on or off the court. Even last season, with Justin Wright-Foreman averaging 27.1 points per game and Buie emerging as the point guard, Pemberton was content to remain in the shadows.
But this season, with Wright-Foreman off to the NBA and Buie entrenched as the Dutchmen’s leader, Pemberton was implored by Buie to take on a bigger role.
“It’s hard to just be a great leader on the court and not be a verbal leader,” Buie said. “He worked on that and now he’s a great leader.”
As Pemberton prepares to pursue a career in professional basketball, there’s little doubt the lessons learned at Hofstra have turned the Nutmeg state native into someone fully identifying himself as a Long Islander.
“I felt like this was the place I was going to grow more as a person,” Pemberton said. “I’ve been challenged here so much, especially my game. I learned a lot of new things about basketball. I feel like if I went to another place, I probably wouldn’t have been as disciplined. Coming here, I went through my downs, I went through certain things. But it mad me (better) and I feel like just being in that New York atmosphere, everybody’s going to keep it 100 percent with you.”
And as for what he prefers to be called?
“This is my second home,” Pemberton said. “Long Island, I’m Eli.”