HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Twenty-two years and 13 days after he led Hofstra to an arena-opening, conference win as a star player eventually bound for the NBA, Craig “Speedy” Claxton got his first home conference victory as a head coach for his alma mater, in the same building, on Saturday.
This one was much tougher than the first event ever held in Hofstra Arena, the Hofstra Flying Dutchmen’s 28-point win (behind Claxton’s 19 points) over Boston University in the then-America East Conference.
Now known as the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex, the structure that is still called the House That Speedy Built hosted a game of wild, back-and-forth swings. In the end, the Hofstra Pride had the final say, holding on for an 82-77 Colonial Athletic Association win over the Delaware Blue Hens, keyed by a career-high 30 points from junior guard Aaron Estrada, 23 points from graduate guard Jalen Ray in an atypical role off the bench, and a sizeable 35-10 disparity in points off of turnovers.
The victory was a microcosm of the Pride’s inconsistent first season under Claxton, who was a Hofstra assistant for the prior eight years. At one extreme, Hofstra (10-7, 2-2 CAA) defeated then-24th ranked Arkansas on the road on Dec. 18 after opening the year by leading then 15th-ranked Houston by 13 points late and losing in overtime and, three games later, having then 20th-ranked Maryland on the ropes before losing in the final seconds. Yet, the Pride also had a head-scratching second half that turned a three-point halftime lead into a 17-point loss at underdog Stony Brook and an unthinkable defeat at William & Mary in Hofstra’s CAA opener.
That similar type of erratic play pervaded throughout the Pride’s victory over the Blue Hens (11-6, 2-2 CAA), the preseason pick to win the conference.
Capped by eight straight points on a driving layup and consecutive 3-pointers from senior guard Omar Silverio (15 points), Hofstra raced out to an 11-1 lead as Delaware started colder than the 18-degree winter weather outside, missing its first 10 shots.
Finally warming up, the Blue Hens scored the next nine points to pull within 11-10, but the Pride responded with the next eight points on a driving layup by Estrada and consecutive 3-pointers from Ray. That was the start of a 15-5 Hofstra spurt that gave the Pride a 26-15 lead with just under seven minutes left in the half.
Delaware then closed the frame on a 20-5 run, to lead 35-31, and extended that advantage to 42-33 after scoring seven of the first nine points in the second half to end a 27-7 spurt spanning both halves.
Turning some aggressive defense into offense, Hofstra — which committed only 10 turnovers and forced 19 — answered with a dominant 25-2 surge over the next 4:55 to lead, 58-44, with 10:52 remaining.
“We’ve been preaching that from Day One,” Claxton said. “Defense wins championships. Some nights, your offense isn’t going to be there, but your defense has to remain the same. To [my players’] credit, they came out and locked up. That was a really good game from a defensive standpoint.”
Estrada added, “It was all on the defensive end. We were already hitting a lot of shots that we wanted to hit and once our defense kicked up, that was the difference in the game.”
During the early part of the Pride’s run, a Silverio 3-pointer with 13:23 left put Hofstra up for good, 45-42. A little over a minute later, a four-point play, on a stepback 3-pointer and free throw from Silverio, gave the Pride some breathing room, at 51-44.
But Hofstra was primarily led by Estrada (a transfer from St. Peter’s and Oregon), who shot 12-for-18 and scored 20 second-half points, and Ray (a fifth-year super senior who took advantage of Covid-induced NCAA rules to return for an extra season), a usual starter, who followed a poor game in a loss at Towson (his fourth dismal outing of the year) on Tuesday, by going 7-for-10 from the field, including 5-for-7 from 3-point range, and 4-for-4 at the free throw line in 31 minutes off the bench.
“J-Ray was huge off the bench,” Claxton acknowledged.
Asked if that’s what he expected from Ray in the guard’s first game as a reserve since his junior season, Claxton answered, “I was hoping to see exactly what I saw. We just wanted to kick-start him to try to get his mind right and to [get him] to try to be a spark. We needed this type of game from him and hopefully this will propel him for the rest of the year.”
Claxton hasn’t decided yet when Ray might return to the starting lineup, but he joked, “If he’s getting 23 points off the bench, then yeah, I’m going to bring him off the bench. We’ll see. I’m not really sure what the plan is going forward.”
Meanwhile, Estrada is enjoying his new, expanded role playing under Claxton. After averaging 8.1 points in 28 games (14 as a starter) as a freshman at St. Peter’s and a scant 3.1 points in nine games as a reserve last year at Oregon, Estrada is scoring 15.8 points per game at Hofstra this season, placing him barely behind fellow transfer and team scoring leader Zach Cooks (16.1 points per game) — who missed his fifth game of the season with an injury — and slightly ahead of Ray (15.3 points per game).
“Coach Speedy gives me a lot of freedom on the offensive end, so I just feel like that gives me a lot of confidence,” Estrada noted. “He puts me in a position to score and I get it done.”
Although things likewise felt comfortable for Hofstra after turning a nine-point deficit into a 14-point lead with less than one-quarter of the game left, Delaware — playing the fourth of five straight road games to start CAA play due to Covid-related postponements — wasn’t done battling.
A final 19-6 charge brought the Blue Hens within 68-67 with 4:03 to go. That run was spurred by four Delaware starters who scored in double figures — sophomore forward Andrew Carr and senior forward Dylan Painter (15 points each), junior guard Jameer Nelson Jr. (14 points), and junior guard Ebby Asamoah (12 points). A fifth Blue Hen scorer in double figures was reserve senior guard Ray Allen (13 points), who left the game with a left knee injury with 7:44 remaining and did not return.
A layup by graduate forward Jarrod Simmons (his only points of the season in his first action since being injured in Hofstra’s season opener) off of an assist by Estrada gave the Pride a 70-67 lead before two free throws from Estrada padded the Pride’s leave to five.
After Painter and Ray traded 3-pointers, a driving layup by senior guard Kevin Anderson (eight points) drew Delaware to within 75-72 with 1:52 left.
The Blue Hens matched that margin twice more, on a free throw by Carr with 26.8 seconds to go and on a dunk by Carr with 8.1 seconds left (when Delaware really needed a 3-pointer), but Estrada fittingly secured the win on a pair of free throws with 6.2 seconds remaining.
Afterward, Claxton said, “That’s a big win. We needed that bounce-back game. Delaware’s a good team. That just proves to these guys that they can play with anybody. When we come out and play with the right energy and effort, we’re a really good team, a dangerous team. I’m very proud of my guys. That’s a big-time win.
“There’s no quit in this team. We got down a little bit but then we fought back.”
Reflecting on Hofstra’s up-and-down season thus far, Claxton added, “We’re making strides. We’re not where we want to be but we’re getting there and hopefully, come March, we’ll reach where we need to be. Right now, we’re taking steps in the right direction. We’ve just got to continue to get better day by day.”
Estrada added, “That’s how good teams get better. They watch film every day and see what they need to work on, and they work on it, so by the time March does come, they know what they need to do to be successful.”
Noting the time Cooks and other vital roster pieces have missed, Claxton said, “We have to get healthy. We have yet to have a complete team and that’s one of the biggest concerns because once everyone comes back, roles are going to change. We have to get everyone back healthy so we can develop some chemistry.“
In the meantime, the Pride needs to continue to win despite the continued injuries. Cooks won’t be back until Hofstra’s next road game, at Northeastern, on Jan. 22. Before that, the Pride will look to move over .500 in conference play when Hofstra hosts Drexel in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee game on Monday.