HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — After being stuck in an inconsistent stretch of losing and winning to start conference play, coming home for a holiday weekend was just what the Hofstra Pride needed.
Following a hard-fought win over preseason Colonial Athletic Association favorite Delaware at home on Saturday, Hofstra (11-7, 3-2 CAA) broke its pattern of alternating defeats and victories and inched above .500 within the CAA for the first time this season with another tough win, this time, 71-68, over the defending CAA champion Drexel Dragons (7-7, 2-2 CAA) at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.
In a back-and-forth affair that featured five ties and 23 lead changes (including 17 in the second half and 10 over the final 6:57), the Pride finally went ahead for good on a pull-up jumper by junior guard Aaron Estrada with 48 seconds left before the nation’s best free throw shooting team over the past four seasons sealed the victory with four foul shots in the last 16 seconds.
Whereas Hofstra used a big 35-10 advantage in points off turnovers to beat Delaware, the Pride had to overcome decided deficits against the Dragons in that area (where Drexel held an 11-4 edge, including 9-0 in the second half) and in points in the paint (where Drexel doubled Hofstra up, 36-18).
While neither team shot the ball well from behind the arc, Drexel (the CAA preseason No. 3 pick) also made three more 3-pointers (going 7-for-22 to Hofstra’s 4-for-16).
The difference was ultimately at the foul line, which the Dragons visited only six times (on 10 Pride fouls), cashing in on just three of those opportunities. Meanwhile, the Pride — which has made a nation-leading 77.8 percent (1,640 of 2,109) of its free throws since the start of the 2018-19 season — sank nine of 10 foul shots to improve to 80 percent as a team this season.
Although Hofstra held last year’s CAA Player of the Year and this year’s CAA preseason favorite Cam Wynter (from the Pride’s hometown of Hempstead, NY) just below his season average of 14.7 points per game — limiting him to 13 points on just 6-of-15 shooting — sophomore guard Xavier Bell (who had never previously scored more than 20 points in a game) poured in a career-high 30 points on extremely efficient 13-of-17 shooting, including 3-for-6 from 3-point range, while adding five assists. However, no other Dragon scored in double figures.
The Pride had only three scorers in double figures, but the trio that reached that mark made a big impact, led by Estrada, who followed a career-best 30-point effort on Saturday with 26 points, eight assists (of Hofstra’s 11) and five rebounds. Usual starter, graduate guard Jalen Ray (coming off a big game against Delaware) provided significant punch off the bench for a second straight game with 18 points on 8-for-14 shooting, and sophomore guard Darlinstone Dubar added 15 important points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Estrada, in particular, changed Hofstra’s failed approach very early. The Pride missed its first five shots, with Estrada’s teammates settling for four missed 3-pointers. Hofstra only took a dozen 3s the rest of the way (making four) as Estrada kept the Pride within 7-4 on mid-range jumpers from the left elbow and along the left baseline.
With Drexel working to take away the 3-point shot from the Pride, Estrada’s teammates followed suit with attempting shots inside the arc.
“We can win in a variety of ways,” said first-year head coach, former Hofstra star, and ex-NBA champion Craig “Speedy” Claxton. “Our mid-range game won it for us today… we have players that can make that shot, so we don’t mind seeing that.”
A pull-up jumper by Ray from the top of the arc capped a 9-3 run that gave the Pride its first lead, 11-10, before the Dragons countered with a 10-2 spurt, to go up, 20-13, at about the midpoint of the opening half.
Six points from Estrada and five from Ray fueled a 15-6 Hofstra answer that moved the Pride ahead, 28-26, before the teams were knotted at 31-31 by halftime.
Junior forward Mate Okros moved Drexel ahead, 34-31, on a 3-pointer ten seconds into the second half, but including a stretch when the game mainly turned into a battle between Bell and Estrada, the Pride outscored the Dragons 19-10 over the next nine minutes to lead, 50-44, with Estrada scoring eight points over that span.
Drexel responded with a 13-6 run that ended on a Wynter 3-pointer. That shot gave the Dragons a 57-56 and touched off a series of lead changes and tense moments down the stretch.
The Dragons regained the lead four more times and the Pride five more, going up for good when Estrada hit a smooth, pull-up, straight-away jumper to give Hofstra a 67-66 lead with 48 seconds left.
Hofstra forced a travel by Bell thirteen seconds later, leading to Dubar getting fouled with 16 seconds remaining. Dubar seemed to have missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Drexel called timeout before the attempt.
Taking full advantage of the reprieve, Dubar made two free throws to extend the Pride’s advantage to 69-66.
Wynter drew the Dragons to within 69-68 on a driving layup with 8.2 seconds left to momentarily keep Drexel alive.
Estrada was fouled with 7.4 seconds to go. The first shot of a one-and-one nearly rattled out before falling back in. Estrada made the second free throw more easily to extend Hofstra’s lead to the final margin.
Wynter tried to force overtime but missed a 3-pointer with just over a second left. Okros secured the offensive rebound near the hoop but time expired before he could find another 3-point shooter.
In addition to finally stringing multiple CAA wins together, Claxton was happy to see more consistent defense from his team when it counted the most for a second straight game.
“I’m proud of our guys because our defense won us the game today,” Claxton said.
What helped with that was switching from a man-to-man to a zone defense at a key point during the second half.
Claxton admitted, “It wasn’t the game plan but it was our fallback plan. It really started because [Drexel was] taking us off the bounce, so we had to switch it up and we went to zone. It worked [for] a couple possessions, so we just stuck with it.”
To get the win, though, it also took some offense from two of Claxton’s best scorers.
“Aaron made some big shots down the stretch along with J-Ray,” Claxton noted.
On Estrada, Claxton added, “He’s a three-level scorer (a perimeter shooter, a mid-range shooter and able to attack the basket) and when you have [that], it’s dangerous because you really can’t stop him.”
Estrada, a transfer who scored far less at St. Peter’s and Oregon than he has this season at Hofstra, credited a pause from classes during winter break with giving him more time to improve his game.
“This is a good time for all college players to work on [our] games. Without having to worry about school right now, I’m able to work on my game a lot more… and that builds a lot of confidence [with] a lot of repetition.”
But even after he scored 56 points over the past two games, don’t label Estrada as merely a bucket-getter. As evidenced by his team-leading five assists per game, Estrada said, “I’m a willing passer as well. I’m not just a scorer. I make the right pass for the most part. I feel like Coach puts me in situations to make plays that really help our team out a lot.”
Claxton added, “I put all my guys in positions to succeed… where they can excel and play to their strengths.”
After seeing his team improve to 7-0 on its home court this season and complete a weekend with triumphs over two of the top three preseason picks in the CAA, Claxton said, “It’s extremely important. If we’re going to have any chance of winning the conference, we’ve got to protect our home court. We played [two of the top] teams and we came out victorious, so that says a lot.”
Completing a winning weekend on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when all players and coaching staff members from both teams wore t-shirts listing an inspirational quote from Dr. King — of fighting against social injustice by choosing love over hate — on their backs on Monday, meant even more.
“I think it’s the first time we ever played on MLK Day,” Claxton said. “It’s truly a blessing. It’s an honor play [on this day]. MLK did a lot for our community, so to be able to play on his day and get a win is great.”
Having sustained its winning ways with a couple of big victories at home, Hofstra will have to find continued success on the road next, with trips to Northeastern (the preseason No. 2 pick, surprisingly still seeking its first conference win after six CAA games this season) on Saturday before traveling the following week to Charleston and then to first-place North Carolina-Wilmington, which despite being picked to finish next to last in the conference, is unexpectedly the CAA’s only remaining unbeaten team in league play.