HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – It was the only three-pointer Shaquille Stokes made in four attempts, but it couldn’t have made his homecoming any sweeter.
As expected, probable first-round NBA draft pick Nate Wolters (25 points) led all scorers and tied Friday night’s game between the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (1-2) and the Hofstra Pride (1-2) on a pair of long three-pointers in the final minute-and-a-half, but the senior point guard was overshadowed by Stokes (nine points), who buried a left-wing three-pointer with 3.6 seconds left to give Hofstra a thrilling 66-63 win before 3,142 fans on the opening night of the 2K Sports Classic sub-regional at the Mack Sports Complex.
The shot not only gave the Pride a much-needed victory after suffering a pair of embarrassing road losses by 31 and 29 points, but it provided a great birthday gift one day early for Stokes’ father, after a family-related issue completed a journey that took the 5-foot-10 sophomore guard full circle, through three places – all ironically starting with the same letter, with the middle stop more than 5,000 miles away from the other two.
Growing up near the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, Stokes – who was named to several all-star, all-league and all city teams, and received a New York City Player of the Year award by the New York Daily News while leading his famed Lincoln High school (in nearby Coney Island) to a PSAL championship – averaged 8.4 points per game in 20.1 minutes as a college freshman for Hawaii last season.
But, when his grandmother, who raised him, fell ill, Stokes decided to return to home, and was granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA so he could immediately begin playing for Hofstra rather than have to sit out a year as most transfers would have to do.
While Stokes delivered his game-winning heroics, the Pride was paced by two more transfers, including another newcomer, as senior point guard Stevie Mejia (in his second year at Hofstra after two years at Rhode Island) and sophomore guard Taran Buie (an Albany, New York native who made his Hofstra debut after playing at Penn State two years ago and sitting out last season) each had 14 points.
Most of Buie’s scoring came in the first half, when he totaled 11 points on perfect 4-of-4 shooting from the floor in ten minutes off the bench, to match Wolters’ 11 points in the opening stanza. Wolters also had all ten of his rebounds in the half to give him a rather quiet double-double on a night when 19 scouts from 14 different NBA teams were invited to see him put his talents on display.
Hofstra scored six straight points to take an early 6-2 lead while SDSU missed its first four shots from the field, but a layup by Wolters capped a 21-10 run that gave the Jackrabbits a 23-16 lead with 7:13 left in the half.
Moments later, seven straight points by Buie tied the game at 25 apiece before Wolters drained a 25-foot three-pointer in the final seconds of the half to put SDSU up 32-31 at intermission.
Holding slight control of the game for most of the second half, the Pride led by as many as five points on nine separate occasions in the final 13 minutes, and had a good chance to put the game away when Stokes set up reserve junior forward Stephen Nwaukoni (eight points, five rebounds) with a layup that might have put things out of reach.
However, Nwaukoni missed a close layup that would have put Hofstra up six points with 2:19 remaining.
“I think if that basket goes in by Stephen Nwaukoni, we probably win the game maybe by four or five points [instead of needing Stokes’ game-winning shot],” said head coach Mo Cassara, who frustratingly stomped his foot on the ground after seeing Nwaukoni miss on a great chance.
“Shaq dropped it off to [Nwaukoni] and he had a good look at it, and it just didn’t go in.”
That left the door open for the Jackrabbits, whose last eight points came in the final two minutes, solely from Wolters, who cut a 59-55 Hofstra lead in half on a layup with 1:59 to go.
After Mejia answered with his own layup, Wolters sank a three-pointer from the left wing to get SDSU to within 61-60 with 1:28 remaining, and following a jumper by Stokes (who made four of nine shots from the floor overall), Wolters made another long-distance trey with 32.4 seconds left to tie the game at 63-63.
Wolters (9-for-18 from the field overall, including three-for-five from three-point range) was kept in check for most of the half though, due largely to a solid defensive effort by Mejia (six-for-ten from the floor), who said his strategy was simply to “Just stay in front of [Wolters] and try to be a pest… just let him know I’m there. He’s a great player, his numbers show [that], but most importantly, we got the win.”
Thanks to Stokes, who while describing the Pride’s final possession, admitted, “Taran and Stevie kept calling for the ball, and I waved them off like, ‘I’m going to have to shoot this one,’ and it went in.”
Junior guard Brayden Carlson (12 points on five of 11 shooting from the field), the Jackrabbits’ only other scorer in double figures, missed a desperation three-pointer as time expired, touching off a celebration by most of the Pride roster that spilled into the media table opposite the Hofstra bench, nearly taking out the laptop of yours truly and preventing you from reading this article.
A proud Cassara noted his team’s big turnaround in a short time, coming against a team that made the NCAA tournament with a 27-7 record last season, and which is favored to win its conference (the Summit League) this year.
“A week ago tonight, we lost by 29 points to Monmouth,” Cassara said. “Tonight, we beat an NCAA tournament team with a [potential] first-round NBA pick… they’re going to win 25, 26, 28 games [this season]… they had [a good] Alabama [team] beat [on the road],” before barely losing 70-67 on the same night Monmouth beat Hofstra.
“That’s a very good team [that we beat],” Cassara continued. “They share the ball as well as any team I’ve ever coached against.”
Cassara was about to expound further on the game when asked how the Pride limited itself to just ten turnovers after committing 40 in its first two games this year, when Stokes raised his hand and explained the true impetus for Hofstra being able to significantly improve upon that category.
“We got tired of running sprints [in practice],” he joked.
Of course, Stokes and the rest of his teammates might not have to worry about that if Hofstra’s new three-guard offense carries the Pride to a lot more wins this season.
In that sense, that trio would be adding just another H-word to the mix – with Stokes’ hoops exploits taking him from Harlem to Hawaii, to Hempstead, at Hofstra, the Pride, after a slow start, might still have a lot of hope.
The second day of the round-robin tournament which benefits the Wounded Warrior Project, continues on Saturday, with Hofstra hosting Division II District of Columbia (1-2) about thirty minutes after the conclusion of SDSU’s game with Marshall (2-1), which tips off at 2:30 pm ET.
Marshall defeated UDC 80-58 before the Pride’s win over the Jackrabbits. The sub-regional will conclude on Sunday, when SDSU meets UDC at 12:30 pm ET, with a game between Marshall and Hofstra to follow.