WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite having swept two meetings with the Charleston Cougars during the regular season, Hofstra Pride rookie head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton was as wary of his team’s Colonial Athletic Association quarterfinal matchup as Charleston head coach Pat Kelsey was confident that his squad would turn things around against Hofstra when it mattered most.
Graduate transfer forward John Meeks made sure that both coaches’ intuitions came to fruition.
After third-seeded Hofstra (21-11, 13-5 CAA) escaped with narrow wins — by three points, at Charleston, on Jan. 27, and by five points, at home, in each team’s regular season finale last Monday — Meeks exploded for 22 of his career-high-tying 31 points in the first half on Sunday to lead sixth-seeded Charleston (17-14, 8-10 CAA) to an impressive 92-76 upset win the CAA quarterfinals at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.
Pouncing on the Pride at the outset of a wire-to-wire win, the Cougars scored the game’s first seven points en route to building commanding leads of 12-3, 43-19, and 55-33 by halftime, to set a CAA tournament record for first-half points.
Meeks, who finished 11-for-16, was Charleston’s only scorer to reach double figures in the opening half, going 7-for-9, while making all four of his 3-point attempts and all four of his foul shots before halftime.
“He’s a really good player,” Claxton said of Meeks (who matched the career-best he scored while playing for Bucknell). “He could kill you in a number of different ways and he definitely did that tonight. It really didn’t matter which way we tried to play him, he took advantage of us, whether it was inside, outside, we definitely had our hands full with him.”
Praising Meeks in more ways than one, Kelsey said, “John was sensational tonight, not just putting the ball in the basket. He willed us to victory. His voice in the huddles, his leadership on the floor, and that’s what veteran guys do. John prides himself on being a competitive dog, and he was that for sure, tonight.”
Although Hofstra quickly got back in the game in the second half, getting to within 70-63 with 10:56 left, Charleston swelled its lead to 92-72 with 1:42 remaining.
“That’s why I didn’t like playing [the same team] back-to-back because this generation tends to relax when they beat a team and we beat them twice this season,” Claxton said. “It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season and I think [Charleston] came out and they just took it to us, and punched us in the mouth from the start, and our kids might not have been ready for that.”
Kelsey said, “They say, in sports, ‘Beating a good team three times in a season is difficult,’ and I think that’s the case because I think we’re a good team.”
Meeks’ outburst came after scoring just eight points and nine points, respectively, in the Cougars’ prior two games against the Pride.
This time, Meeks said, “The ball was going in, it was as simple as that.”
But Meeks also noted that other things helped. “A lot of preparation, a lot of watching film to see how they were guarding me, what they were doing, and what I was able to come out and do tonight, worked,” he said.
Meeks also helped Kelsey during a Charleston timeout after Hofstra started the second half on a 30-15 surge over the first 9:04 or the stanza, a run that was capped by consecutive 3-pointers from graduate guard Jalen Ray, who led the Pride with 21 points on 7-for-18 shooting.
“What’s great about having veteran leadership like John, is I didn’t have to say much in that huddle. John’s a very, very mature kid, but he’s very prideful and emotional at times, which I love – I kind of have some of that in me.”
Charleston responded with a 22-9, game-clinching spurt to advance to Monday night’s CAA semifinals against second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington.
While Hofstra’s offense eventually showed up, as usual, the Pride couldn’t string together enough stops the way the Cougars could.
Charleston misfired on three straight attempts only twice and missed two straight shots five times.
In contrast, Hofstra missed two straight three times, missed three consecutive shots once, missed four shots in a row twice, clanged six straight shots once, and bricked seven straight shots once.
“They’re really, really talented,” Kelsey said of the Pride. “We played unbelievable in the first half. We were playing hard, we were rebounding, we were making shots, and they punched us in the mouth [coming] out of halftime. They went on that unbelievable run, they’re raining in 3s, you can’t let them get going in transition, and we let them [do that]. But our guys responded. We countered to their counter.”
After forcing a season-high 28 turnovers against Charleston on Monday, Hofstra managed less than half of that this time, with the Cougars committing only 13.
“That was a huge part [of the win],” Kelsey said. “We knew we couldn’t allow them to create offense through their defense.”
Charleston also took a different approach in finally slowing down CAA Player of the Year, junior transfer guard Aaron Estrada, who after scoring 30 points and 28 points, respectively, in the Pride’s two victories over the Cougars this season, was limited to a harmless 19 points on 7-for-17 shooting.
“Aaron Estrada was averaging like 80 against us,” Kelsey exaggerated. “So, we knew we had to do some different things on the pick-and-roll coverage. Our guys executed it pretty well. We said, ‘He’s the head of the snake,’ and you’ve got to cut off the head if you’re gonna beat them.
“I’m glad we don’t have to see them again because preparing for those guards, as explosive as they are, gives me indigestion.”
Claxton, however, said, “I didn’t see anything different. I thought that [Estrada] got the shots that he always gets, unfortunately, tonight, he just didn’t make them.”
“A tough way to end or season,” a dejected Claxton said with Ray seated to his left in the press room. “Hats off to Charleston. They played great. I thought we didn’t play the way we needed to play in the first half… you can’t spot a team 20 points and expect to win the game.”
Ray added, “We played coming from behind, and that’s tough to do, especially circumstances like this [in the tournament].”
Having seeing the Cougars get half of their points in the paint — where Charleston held a decided 46-30 advantage in that category, along with key edges of 17-9 edge in second-chance points and 40-26 on the glass — Claxton said, “They just kind of out-toughed us. That was the Number One key coming into the game for us. We knew that the tougher team would win and they were the tougher team tonight.
“This game honors toughness and when you’re tough out there, most of the time, you’re going to be in the ballgame and put yourself in a position to win, and when you’re not, you can’t win. You’ve got to be tough.”
For those returning next season, Hofstra will now have several months to think about how to be that way more often, especially in the CAA tournament.