HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The Hofstra Pride and Charleston Cougars could have been forgiven if neither had given a full effort on Monday night in the final Colonial Athletic Association regular season game at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex.
After all, the makeup game that was tacked on to what was supposed to be the end of the regular season for each team on Saturday (due to a Covid pandemic-induced postponement on Jan. 5) wasn’t going to have an effect on the seeding for any CAA teams in the upcoming CAA tournament.
Yet someone who didn’t know any better might’ve thought Hofstra (21-10, 13-5 CAA) and Charleston (16-14, 8-10 CAA) were already competing for the much higher stakes than they’ll be fighting for against each other in six more nights, when the Pride and Cougars will clash again in the CAA quarterfinals, in Washington, D.C. on Sunday.
Hofstra worked hard to build several double-digit leads and Charleston diligently battled back to get very close toward the end before the Pride, behind 28 points from leading CAA Player of the Year candidate Aaron Estrada, 19 points from senior transfer guard Omar Silverio, and a season-high 28 forced turnovers finally finished the Cougars off, 89-84.
“Whenever you step on the court, you want to win, regardless of if you want to play or not,” rookie head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton said. “I’m sure those guys (Charleston), they didn’t want to be here — it was a meaningless game — but both teams are competitors and once the ball goes up, we knew it was going to be game on.”
The win (and regular season sweep over Charleston) allowed Hofstra (which also won at Charleston, 76-73, on Jan. 27) to enter its quarterfinal matchup with maybe at least a modest psychological edge over the Cougars as well as a two-game winning streak and eight wins in its past nine games. In contrast, Charleston will head to Washington, D.C. on a two-game skid and four losses in its past six contests.
Perhaps most importantly, the victory righted the offensive mindset for Hofstra’s best player (and arguably the CAA’s best player), Estrada, who had cooled off significantly in the Pride’s prior two games compared to his previous level that made him the CAA’s leading scorer over most of the season.
The junior transfer guard was back to his old self, shooting 9-for-15, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range, and 6-for-7 from the foul line. All of his free throw attempts and 18 of his points came in the second half when Estrada made all but one of his six shots from the floor.
Claxton, seated next to Estrada in the press room, said, “I’m happy that my guy over here started seeing the ball go through the rim again.”
Estrada added, “It gives me a big confidence boost because the past two games, I was struggling shooting the ball. I wasn’t really efficient the last two games. So, I never got too low on myself or anything like that. Everybody just tells me to keep shooting, so this game really did give me a lot of confidence going into the tournament.”
Trying to win without giving away some strategies that the Pride might use against the Cougars in the tournament, Claxton said, “It’s tough because you don’t want to show them everything, so I kind of dialed back the playbook and kind of just kept it simple. It’s not an ideal situation. I really didn’t like it.”
If Hofstra’s coach wasn’t a fan of playing the same opponent in the last regular season game before facing that same opponent in its next contest in the CAA tournament, the Pride’s players certainly didn’t seem to reveal the same during a strong first half, in which Estrada and Silverio were the only players to score in double figures, with each having 10 points before halftime.
After Hofstra jumped out to a 9-4 lead, Charleston — which was led by 19 points each from a pair of freshmen, guard Reyne Smith and reserve forward Ben Burnham — stayed within one point on five occasions before the Pride pushed that margin to as much 11 points three different times and led at intermission, 42-31.
Silverio extended Hofstra’s advantage to a game-high 57-45, on a 3-pointer, with 13:33 left, and Estrada maintained the Pride’s last double-digit cushion, at 68-58, on a fast break 3-pointer with 7:44 remaining.
“Big-time players make big plays, and I thought those two guys made some big shots down the stretch to kind of keep [Charleston] at bay,” Claxton said of Silverio and Estrada.
A Burnham dunk with 1:13 to go capped a 19-12 Cougars run which trimmed Charleston’s deficit to just 80-77.
Moments later, out of a Hofstra timeout, with seven seconds to shoot, Estrada curled around from the right wing to the left wing before taking an inbounds pass and draining a 3-pointer that doubled the Pride’s lead to 83-77 with 42.2 seconds left.
Asked if that was a different wrinkle to not give a late-game situation away for Sunday, Claxton admitted, “We run that play all the time, so it was just a good pass by (junior guard) Caleb Burgess and a great shot.”
Normally, Hofstra’s free throw shooting could be counted on from that point to ice a win, as the Pride entered the night as the nation’s third-most accurate team from the line, at 80.2 percent. However, Hofstra was an uncharacteristic 14-for-22 (63.6 percent) at the charity stripe by that point.
When it mattered most, the Pride ultimately came through at the foul line, making its final six free throw attempts over the last 22.1 seconds.
Silverio made two foul shots to put Hofstra up, 85-79, before Smith cut that lead in half on a 3-pointer with 13.8 seconds left, but Estrada sank two free throws a second later.
Two foul shots from Smith kept Charleston within 87-84, with eights seconds remaining, but graduate guard Jalen Ray (eight points) closed the scoring one second later with a pair of free throws.
In a battle of the CAA’s two highest-scoring teams, each squad eclipsed its scoring average entering the game (Charleston, at a CAA-leading 78.4 points per game, and Hofstra, at 78.0 points per game).
And although the Pride allowed the Cougars to shoot 61.3 percent in the second half, including 66.7 percent from 3-point range, Hofstra limited Charleston to just 40 percent shooting, including 33.3 percent from behind the arc in the first half.
The Pride, getting 15 steals, harassed the second-most turnover-prone team in the conference. That fueled Hofstra’s transition game which gave the Pride key edges in points off turnovers (32-19) and fast break points (17-4).
“They’re a high-turnover team, so coming into the game, we kind of expected that,” Claxton said. “We got stops and rebounded. If you don’t get stops and rebound, you can’t get out. That was definitely one of the offensive keys, was to get out in transition.”
Estrada added, “We watch a lot of film on defense, we break down what we need to be doing and I feel like being prepared at practice… all that stuff just carries over and helps me be an overall defender in the game.”
Offensively, Estrada is already expecting Charleston to change its approach against him on Sunday, predicting, “I feel like next time, they’re probably going to try to do a different game plan, because the first time we played them (this season), I had 30 [points]. This time, I had 28, so I feel like they’re probably going to change the way that they play me. I’m just going to play my game, still, try to do what I do, and provide for the team.”
Claxton knows that may not be the only challenge to overcome to defeat the Cougars for a third time this season.
“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Claxton said. “They’re the most physical team in the league. Charleston’s a very physical team and that’s the biggest key against them, is the toughness and I thought we had the toughness tonight, and we need that same toughness on Sunday.”
Estrada added, “You’ve got to play tough [against Charleston] from the time that you check in until you get out because everybody on their roster is going to be going hard.”
With the regular season now behind Hofstra, the Pride is ready for the part of the year that counts the most as the calendar flips tomorrow from February to March and the ensuing, annual madness is set to begin shortly, two years after Hofstra won the CAA tournament (on the same floor the Pride will soon be returning to) only to have the Covid pandemic cancel what would have been the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 19 years.
“We’re just focused right now,” Claxton said. “We have a goal at hand and we want to be cutting down those nets. We’ll get these guys the proper rest, get their bodies right, get their minds right, and get ready to play again on Sunday.”