HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Having played in — and mostly won — several close Colonial Athletic Association games this season, the Hofstra Pride was perhaps already battle-tested for next month’s CAA tournament.
But Hofstra (15-9, 7-4 CAA) had also yet to beat either of the top two teams in the CAA, losing at first-place North Carolina-Wilmington and getting swept in two games against second-place Towson.
Check that one off the list for the Pride, which moved into sole possession of third-place after surviving a last-second layup that rimmed out for a thrilling 73-71 victory over the UNCW Seahawks (16-7, 10-2 CAA) in a very competitive contest that had a later-round CAA tournament feel to it at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Monday evening.
Junior transfer guard Aaron Estrada (23 points, 5-for-9 from 3-point range) got enough help from sophomore transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar (20 points, a career-best against a Division I team, four shy of an overall career-high), and transfer guard Zach Cooks, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half.
That trio very nearly equaled the scoring production of four UNCW scorers in double figures, including graduate guard Mike Okauru (game-high 25 points), transfer guard Jaylen Fornes (13 points), senior guard Jaylen Sims (12 points, game-high 12 rebounds, team-high six assists), and transfer guard James Baker Jr., who scored all of his 11 points after halftime.
Noting other support received from starting junior guard Caleb Burgess, who despite going scoreless in 17 minutes, had a game-high seven assists and only one turnover, and a couple of helpful late buckets from reserve transfer guard Omar Silverio (seven points), first-year head coach and former Hofstra star Craig “Speedy” Claxton called the triumph, “A great win, a great team effort. We got contributions from everyone.”
Finally providing his team a little breathing room in an otherwise tight game, a clutch, stepback jumper by Estrada gave Hofstra a 70-64 lead with 1:20 left before two free throws from Dubar extended the margin to the largest of the second half, at 72-65, with 32.9 seconds remaining.
While that should have been enough for a team entering the night as the nation’s second-most accurate free throw shooting team, the Pride uncharacteristically left the door wide open for the Seahawks by missing three key free throws over the final 20.8 seconds.
And Okauru wasn’t ready to let the Seahawks go quietly. After going 8-for-10 from 3-point range in a win at William & Mary on, Okauru made six of eight 3s on Monday night, the last two, causing some very nervous moments for Hofstra.
Okauru drained a left-wing 3-pointer with 23.5 seconds to go to cut the Pride’s lead to 72-68 before Dubar missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 20.8 seconds left. That miss didn’t cost Hofstra, but the next one did — another front-end miss — by graduate forward Jarrod Simmons, with 13.2 seconds to go.
Taking full advantage of that, the Seahawks quickly pushed the ball up the floor, with Sims finding Okauru for another left-wing trey to trim the Pride’s edge further, to 72-71, with 8.3 seconds remaining.
UNCW might have needed yet another Okauru 3-pointer, but Cooks, fouled in the frontcourt with 6.5 seconds left, made only the second of two free throws, changing the strategy for the Seahawks.
Receiving an inbounds pass at UNCW’s own foul line, Okauru drove up court, used a high screen from Baker, and tried for the tie on a layup off the glass, going past Simmons, in the paint. But the ball rolled off of the left side of the rim and then across the front of it. Silverio secured the rebound as time ran out, allowing Hofstra to escape with a statement win.
Picked eighth in the 10-team CAA, the Seahawks were the surprise of the conference after navigating through the first half of league play unscathed at 9-0. But UNCW has started the second half of its CAA slate losing two of three games.
Meanwhile, the Pride has perhaps already prepared itself well for the CAA tournament, playing eight games decided by seven points or less, going 6-2 in those contests. That includes a 4-1 record in league games coming down to the last shot or decided in overtime, winning the last four of those meetings.
The difference on Monday was that for the first time, one such win came against a team sitting above Hofstra in the CAA standings, in a clash — televised nationally on the CBS Sports Network — that seemed befitting of what might take place in March.
That feeling occurred right from the start, with high energy both offensively and defensively from each team, with each team’s best player beginning with an early scoring bout against each other.
It was Okauru 8, Estrada 7, after 3:20, before anyone else scored.
The early back-and-forth fight between Okauru and Estrada was the initial part of an exciting seesaw affair that featured 21 lead changes — including a late second-half stretch of lead changes occurring on seven straight baskets — and nine ties.
Some lockdown defense by the Pride forced the Seahawks to miss nine straight shots and 11 of 12 as Hofstra went on a 14-4 run to build the game’s biggest lead, 24-16, with 6:21 left in the opening half.
Okauru, Fornes and Sims keyed a 14-7 answer to close the half, which ended with the Pride up, 31-30, the same score Hofstra led by in its previous game, in an overtime home win over James Madison on Saturday.
Each team’s offense caught fire in the second half. After starting the game 12-for-33 from the floor, UNCW made 14 of its next 18 shots to grab a 61-60 lead with 6:46 left. Hofstra overcame a 14-for-43 start to make 13 of its next 21 shots to lead, 67-64, with 3:55 remaining.
That set up the stretch run in which the Pride nearly played extra time for a second consecutive game before barely holding off the CAA’s best team to avenge Hofstra’s six-point loss at UNCW on Jan. 29. Doing so moved the Pride to within 2½ games of the Seahawks and within one game of Towson.
Estrada, for one, wouldn’t mind if Monday night’s matchup ended up being a preview of the CAA championship game with an NCAA tournament berth on the line in Washington, D.C. on March 8.
“It (the loss at UNCW) definitely was on my mind,” Estrada said. “They got us when we played at Wilmington. I feel like when we played there, it was a lot of things that weren’t going our way. I don’t like to give excuses or anything, but… this was a redemption game for us and we’re hopefully going to see them in the [CAA] tournament, in the championship.”
Claxton added, “That’s a good team (UNCW) over there, so I’m proud of my guys. To beat the first-place team and get us back in the mix, in the upper echelon of the league, is a good effort for us.
“It was two really good teams on national TV, going head-to-head. It was big for both programs. Thankfully, we came out on top. Not too many people are going to want to see them (the Seahawks) come [CAA] tournament time.”
Asked if he thought his players are at ease playing in close games so frequently this season, Claxton said laughing, “They might feel comfortable. I don’t. These games are way too close for me. To [their credit], they’ve stepped up. They’ve been good in late-game situations and hopefully, that continues.”
After sending a message to the team at the top (and perhaps to the rest of the conference), Hofstra will hit the road for its next three games — at Drexel, at Delaware, and at Elon — before closing the regular season with four games at home, where the Pride is 9-1 this season.
While there might have been a significant psychological difference of failing to beat the CAA’s best for a second time and falling to a mediocre 6-5 in league play versus Hofstra knowing it beat the conference leader and moving to a considerably more solid three games above .500 in CAA play, Claxton said that the win has little effect as the Pride faces its final two main legs of the regular season.
“It doesn’t change much,” he said. “We’ve got to take every game seriously. Every game means something. Even if we would have lost, we still would have had to win the next game, no matter what. Every game is crucial at this point, coming down the stretch.”