HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Everything pointed to another Hofstra Pride blowout win but first-year head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton knew better, hoping against his better instincts that he might be wrong.
Nine days earlier, Hofstra throttled its Colonial Athletic Association rival, the Elon Phoenix, by 33 points in the Pride’s largest Division I win of the season, on the road.
Bringing a 10-1 home record and a season-high six-game winning streak to the Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Thursday night, the third-place Pride (19-10, 11-5 CAA) was favored by 13½ points to once again easily beat the seventh-place Phoenix (9-21, 6-11 CAA), which came to Hofstra with a 1-11 road record and a four-game losing streak.
However, Claxton’s concerns were realized when Elon flipped the script on Hofstra, leading by as much as 31 points before handing Pride its worst defeat of the season, 81-55, behind sophomore guard Darius Burford (21 points), junior guard Hunter McIntosh (18 points), and redshirt junior transfer center Andrew Junkin (career-best 16 points, game-high 10 rebounds), each of whom scored more than any Hofstra player.
It was a bad sign for the Pride from the start, when transfer junior guard Aaron Estrada, the leading CAA Player of the Year candidate, missed badly on an airballed 3-point attempt nine seconds into the game.
The normally reliable Estrada had one of his worst games, scoring just nine points on 4-of-17 shooting, while missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
He certainly wasn’t alone, though, as Hofstra collectively shot a season-low 29.5 percent (18-for-61) from the floor, including 22.2 percent (6-for-27) from 3-point range.
Sophomore transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar (10 points) and senior transfer guard Omar Silverio (10 points) were the only Pride players to score in double figures, each barely getting there. Silverio was held scoreless in the second half after notching a career-best 40 points, while making 11 3 pointers (establishing all-time CAA and Hofstra program records), at Elon, on Feb. 15.
Claxton, who starred as a Hofstra player more than two decades ago, was wary of his team being overconfident after the way the Pride routed the Phoenix two games earlier.
“I knew [that] was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened, that we won like that,” Claxton said. “It’s tough with this generation. They play down to the level of competition.”
Although Hofstra had established itself along with North Carolina-Wilmington and Towson as seemingly one of the top three teams to beat in next month’s CAA tournament in Washington, D.C., the red flags were already there after some close calls against inferior competition, most recently, against last-place Northeastern last Saturday.
“These last games coming down the stretch, I call them trap games and we were there,” Claxton said. “We were in the trap. We escaped it against Northeastern but we were back in it tonight and we didn’t make it out.”
Elon badly outworked Hofstra by every hustle measure, whether it was a 55-26 overall rebounding advantage — including a 16-7 edge on the offensive glass — a sizeable 16-4 margin in second-chance points, or dominating the Pride in the paint, 38-16.
“They won everything,” Claxton admitted. “Every shot they missed, they seemed like they got it back. It was all, a bad night. They out-toughed us from the beginning to the end.”
After six straight Pride points put Hofstra up, 8-7, Junkin began going to work inside, scoring the next seven points. Junkin, whose prior career-best was eight points against the Pride last earlier, doubled that output to give him 24 of his 59 total career points (in 23 career games) against Hofstra.
Seven straight Pride points (on an Estrada layup and five more from Silverio) moved Hofstra in front, 15-14, just before the midpoint of the opening half, but the Pride never led again.
Nine consecutive points — on a driving layup by Burford and the next seven, from McIntosh (who scored all of his points in the first half on the strength of 4-for-6 shooting from behind the arc in the half) broke the game open, at 43-29, just before Hofstra ended a string of six straight missed shots, scoring the last points of the half on a layup.
Elon scored the first 13 points of the second half, to lead, 56-31, as the Pride missed its first 12 shots after halftime, making it 18 of 19 misses. Hofstra’s first points of the second half didn’t come until a three-point a play was converted exactly eight minutes into the half.
The Pride got no closer than 22 points the rest of the way as the Phoenix ballooned its lead to as much as 79-48, with 2:43 remaining.
Hofstra’s season-low scoring output yielded fewer points than the Pride scored by halftime (56) in its win at Elon last week.
Missing shots can happen, Claxton acknowledged. But he was especially disturbed that Hofstra’s offensive problems affected the Pride at the other end of the floor.
“You’re going to have nights like that,” Claxton said. “We know that. It’s not our first night when we missed a bunch of 3s, and those are nights that you’ve got to rely on your defense, and our defense was not good at all tonight.”
A dejected Claxton added, “We got exactly what we deserved. They didn’t come out to play the right way. They didn’t respect this team and that was the last thing I said to these kids walking out [of] the locker room, was [to have] respect because I already knew what it was.
“Every time you step on the court, no matter who you face, you’ve got to respect your opponent or else you’re going to lose.”
Asked if the defeat was Hofstra’s most disheartening of the season in the immediate wake of six straight victories, Claxton said, “It’s up there. No disrespect to Elon, but it’s disappointing because we had been playing really well — maybe not the last game, against Northeastern — but before that, we were playing extremely well. That’s why this loss hurts… we didn’t expect to lose. We were at home.”
After missing a chance to finish with one of the top two seeds in the upcoming CAA tournament, Claxton looked at the bigger picture. “It’s not a major cause for concern,” Claxton reflected. “We’re still one of the top teams [in the conference]. We won’t be [competing] for first-place anymore, but we’ve still got a lot of ball left and we’ve still got to win three games come [CAA] tournament time.”
Claxton added, “Hopefully, it can be a blessing. Hopefully, we can learn from this and go from here.”
Hofstra can still remain in third-place and clinch the 3 seed in the CAA tournament with a win in either of its last two regular-season games (each at home) — on Senior Day, against ninth-place William & Mary on Saturday, before concluding with a Covid-induced makeup game against sixth-place Charleston (which as of now, would be the Pride’s CAA quarterfinal opponent on March 6) — or if Delaware loses one of its two final regular-season games.
The game against William & Mary gives Hofstra a chance to play the avenging role the Phoenix just played against the Pride.
Although William & Mary is a CAA-worst 5-25 overall and was in the process of suffering an embarrassing 62-28 defeat at Northeastern while Hofstra was losing to Elon, Claxton will be sure to remind his group that like the Phoenix with the Pride, Hofstra owes its next opponent some payback after opening CAA play this season with a surprising one-point loss at William & Mary due to, in Claxton’s opinion, the Pride overlooking a team it should have beaten, just like Hofstra did with Elon.
“We’re playing William & Mary and they beat us the first time because, same thing, we didn’t respect them coming out of the gate,” Claxton cautioned. “So, hopefully, a lesson will be learned.”