HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hofstra Pride head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton sat down at the media table on Saturday, picked up the water bottle that was waiting for him, and jokingly asked with a smile, “Ya’all got any vodka?”
Anyone who had witnessed the end of regulation a few moments earlier could have easily understood why a stronger beverage might have been needed.
Lucky for Claxton, he had junior transfer guard Aaron Estrada to bail Hofstra out in an 85-78 Colonial Athletic Association overtime win over the James Madison Dukes before a Winter Homecoming crowd of 3,793 at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex.
It appeared that the 11th time scoring at least 20 points this season for the CAA’s leading scorer would suffice until Estrada’s third 30-point game of his career (all within his past seven games) — ending with a career-high 35 points — was required to finally put James Madison (13-8, 4-6 CAA) away.
Preparing to leave the CAA (for the Sun Belt Conference) at the end of the season after 37 years its current conference, the Dukes didn’t want their final league game at The Mack to end without adding one more memorable overtime contest to the list that James Madison and Hofstra (spending its 21st year in the CAA) had complied together.
In the teams’ 39th meeting, it was the eighth time they went to overtime against each other, three more than any other for the Pride and a CAA opponent since Hofstra joined the conference. The Pride has won five of those games, with seven of the eight overtime games occurring on Hofstra’s home floor.
With the Pride (14-9, 6-4 CAA) seemingly in control, the Dukes scored the final seven points of regulation — including five over a wild final 37 seconds of the second half — to force overtime.
But Estrada took over from there, singlehandedly outscoring James Madison, 9-7, while accounting for all but five of Hofstra’s 14 points in the extra session.
Estrada, who averaged 8.1 points per game as a freshman at St. Peter’s and 3.1 points per game in very limited time at Oregon, raised his season average to 18 points per game (on a conference-leading 47.9 percent shooting), more than two points better than the next-highest scorer in the CAA, James Madison redshirt junior guard Vado Morse (15.9 points per game).
With 21 points, Morse was a good complement to graduate guard Chris Falden who posted a career-best 25 points on 11-for-16 shooting. But Hofstra otherwise kept the CAA’s highest-scoring team in check, as the Dukes were held a dozen points below their season average of 78.3 points per game until the final seconds of regulation.
“I think we did a solid job on them,” Claxton said. “We let two of their guys get [over] 20 [points each], but they’re good players. Overall, I’m happy with our defensive performance.”
While Estrada was the main story, he likewise needed a sidekick in order to play the primary hero role. That help came from graduate transfer guard Zach Cooks, who despite missing five of six shots from 3-point range, shot 6-for-14 overall to score 16 important points in 30 minutes off the bench.
“That was huge,” Claxton noted. “We needed a secondary scorer and Zach provided that for us… if we didn’t get those points from him, we probably lose.”
It was Cooks who started a key, early run of 11 straight Hofstra points (while the Dukes missed eight straight shots) with a 3-pointer before Estrada added five points on a layup and a 3-pointer during the spurt, to turn a one-point deficit into a 23-13 Pride lead a little past the midpoint of the opening half.
Morse then hit a trio of 3s and Falden added a pair of layups to account for all of James Madison’s scoring during a 17-8 stretch that brought the Dukes to within 31-30 by halftime.
After missing its final five shots and 11 of 15 to close the first half, Hofstra caught fire to match the largest lead of the game, at 59-49, on a driving Cooks layup, with 11:07 remaining in the second half.
By that point, the Pride, in the second half, had already matched the number of fields goals it had in the first half (12) on half as many shots (16) as Hofstra took in the first half (32).
An 11-3 James Madison run trimmed the Pride’s lead to just 62-60 with 5:29 to go before a pair of step-back buckets (a jumper and 3-pointer) from Estrada bookended — with driving layups by Cooks and Estrada in between — a 9-4 counter from Hofstra that seemingly put the Pride comfortably ahead, 71-64, with 2:48 left in regulation.
That’s when things got a little hard to believe for Claxton and Hofstra’s best home crowd of the season.
A driving layup by Morse 15 seconds later cut the margin to five, but Morse eventually airballed a 3-point attempt that bounced into the Lion’s Den Hofstra student section behind the basket.
However, with the Dukes pressuring the Pride, Estrada stepped out of bounds on the ensuing inbounds play with 42.7 seconds left in the half.
Falden quickly took advantage of that, draining a 3-pointer with 37.6 seconds to go in regulation, to get James Madison within 71-69.
Less than five seconds later, the Dukes forced a held ball for the second time in the final 1:56 of the half, with more backcourt pressure, leading to a Falden miss that went out of bounds off of Hofstra with 21.1 seconds remaining in regulation. Morse converted that opportunity into a layup that tied the game, 71-71, with 11.2 seconds to go in the half.
Following a non-shooting foul in the frontcourt by James Madison with 2.9 left in the period, Estrada had the ball stolen before a Dukes desperation heave sailed off the backboard as the buzzer sounded.
Claxton credited James Madison — which thanks to a senseless CAA bylaw — is banned from competing in the CAA tournament in March due to its impending defection to the Sun Belt Conference.
“They’re not really playing for much and they still came out and played hard and intense,” Claxton said. “That says a lot about their kids.”
Heading into overtime, Claxton convinced his team that while the lead was inconceivably lost, the game wasn’t yet.
Claxton recalled, “We just told them, ‘Put it past us. We’ve got to move forward. This is still our game. We still have to protect home court. Our fans are behind us, and go out and win the game.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”
A Morse free throw started the scoring in overtime, but sophomore transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar’s only points of the game — on a 3-pointer — put the Pride ahead to stay, 74-72.
Estrada took over at that point. Oblivious to the crowd’s “M!V!P!” chants, Estrada nonetheless validated those sentiments, taking the Pride’s final five shots of the game, making all but one of them.
“I didn’t hear it,” Estrada said of chants. “I was too locked into the game.”
One of Hofstra’s all-time greats when he played for the program before and after The Mack (then Hofstra Arena) first opened on Jan. 2, 2000, Claxton quipped, “That’s pretty impressive. I didn’t even get any MVP chants.”
An Estrada layup pushed Hofstra’s lead to 76-72 before Estrada added a 3-pointer to give him a new career-high (at 31 points) while extending the Pride’s advantage to 79-72, with 2:13 left.
The latter basket was one of six 3s Estrada made on 10 attempts in the game, along with 7-for-11 shooting from inside the arc.
That performance continued a recent, huge turnaround for Estrada with his 3-point shooting. Before his last four games, Estrada was shooting was a dismal 24.8 percent (25-for-101) from 3-point range this season, but he has since made a sizzling 53.8 percent (14 of 26) from that distance.
“I feel like it’s just confidence,” Estrada said. “[Early in] the season, I wasn’t really hitting 3s a lot. I was missing, so it was kind of messing with my confidence a little bit. But, thanks to the coaching staff working with me every day, telling me to keep shooting, I feel like that played a big part in my progression with my 3-point shooting.”
Two more things helped. The crowd, which included homecoming visits from two other former Hofstra greats and NBA second-round draft picks, Charles Jenkins and Justin Wright-Foreman.
“When you have the crowd behind you, and you have people supporting you, that just gives you more confidence, and it ultimately makes you play harder,” Estrada said. “I feel like it does that for the team, too… it gives us a big boost.”
Besides attending the game, Jenkins also spoke to the team at Friday’s practice at Claxton’s request.
“It means everything,” Claxton said. “I just wanted to do something different to kind of just motivate these guys and I thought that was the perfect opportunity to bring in Charles, one of the best players here, to come back and talk to these guys about what it is to be a student-athlete, the expectations, and [what it takes] to be a good player at this level, and the work that you have to put into it to become a good player.”
Even though Claxton — as a first-year head coach, former NBA first-round draft pick, and NBA champion — certainly has the clout to impart that himself, the voice of another NBA draft pick, like Jenkins, doesn’t hurt.
Despite that support, Hofstra still needed Estrada to gut out a tough win.
After a Falden layup with 1:17 left sliced the Pride’s lead to 79-76, Estrada answered with a layup of his own.
Another JMU layup again made it a three-point game, but a quick turnaround jumper off of a catch in the left post by Estrada moved Hofstra’s edge to 83-78, with 23.3 seconds remaining.
The Pride forced a missed 3-pointer by Falden before Cooks finally iced the game at the foul line with two free throws.
“We could have folded when they took it to overtime, but we didn’t,” Claxton said, sitting next to Estrada. “We held our composure and my guy over here, Aaron Estrada, he took us home… an unbelievable performance by him.
“We should have won this game in regulation, but we didn’t, [yet we still won anyway]. That’s why I’m super proud of my guys.”
Claxton was also much happier with his team’s attitude leading up to the game than before Hofstra’s home loss on Thursday night, to Towson, which Claxton said “started in practice” the day before.
A different offensive approach was also a much better departure.
Totaling only 16 assists on 51 baskets in consecutive losses at first-place North Carolina-Wilmington and then the defeat to Towson, the Pride recorded 22 assists on its 34 buckets on Saturday.
“That’s always one of the keys, is sharing the basketball,” Claxton said. “We have a lot of really good scorers and it’s just trying to get them to play with each other and off of each other. I think they did a good job with that today.”
The trick for Claxton now is getting his team to maintain the same level of readiness and execution in more consistent ways.
“These guys were laser-focused yesterday when we were preparing for JMU,” Claxton said. “I told them, ‘That’s the kind of preparation that we expect going forward.’ It has to be that. It can’t be any less.”
That’s especially true as Hofstra seeks to close out a winning three-game homestand instead of a losing one while trying to avenge last week’s loss and making a statement on national television against CAA-leading North Carolina-Wilmington on Monday evening before heading out for a three-game road swing.