Hofstra Passes Another Early-Season Test In Home Opener

photo: Lee Weissman (GoHofstra.com)

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The Hofstra Pride has certainly not shied away from challenging itself outside of its Colonial Athletic Conference schedule under second-year head coach and former Hofstra superstar guard Craig “Speedy” Claxton.

Last year, Hofstra upset No. 24 Arkansas on the road and came extremely close to doing the same at 15th-ranked Houston and at No. 20 Maryland.

This season, Hofstra (2-0) has already passed a couple of difficult tests at the very start with nearly identical final scores.

After rallying to win, 83-77, as a 2½-point underdog at Princeton on Monday night, the Pride, as a three-point underdog, went 14-for-29 from 3-point range to upset this year’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite, the Iona Gaels, 83-78, before a raucous home crowd of 3,707 at the David S. Mack Sports Complex on Friday night.

While seeing his team respond well to potential early-season scheduling pitfalls, Claxton is also learning that Hofstra can win whether or not its reigning and preseason CAA Player of the Year, redshirt transfer senior guard, Aaron Estrada, is leading the way.

“Overall, a great team effort, a major win for us, to go 2-0,” Claxton said. “That’s a tough Iona team. We battled all game. Everyone who stepped on the court was ready to fight and I’m really proud of my guys, especially these two.”

The “two” were redshirt senior transfer guard Tyler Thomas and sophomore transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar, seated on each side of Claxton during a happy postgame press conference.

Unlike when he scored a game-high 27 points in the victory at Princeton, Estrada was limited to just 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting and forced by Iona’s defense to get others involved.

Enter Thomas and Dubar, who combined for 20 of the Pride’s first 22 points (with Thomas scoring 11 in that stretch) to stake Hofstra to a 22-15 lead after eight minutes.

Thomas, who led Sacred Heart in scoring each of the two prior seasons, went on to finish with a game-high 26 points on 9-for-14 shooting while going 6-for-10 from 3-point range.

Meanwhile, Dubar scored 22 points (the most he has posted against a Division I opponent and two shy of his career-high of 24 in a win over John Jay last season), on 9-for-16 shooting, while making half of his six 3-point tries, to go along with six rebounds.

It wasn’t just that duo, however, which helped put Hofstra over the top for the second straight game.

Sophomore guard Jaquan Carlos already looks like a different player compared to the tentative approach he showed during a rocky freshman campaign. After making two key 3-pointers in the final moments to help Hofstra get by Princeton, Carlos added 12 points and a game-high and career-best seven assists (with only three turnovers) against Iona, which fell to 1-1 after drubbing Pennsylvania by 28 points at home on Monday night.

“He’s turned the corner for us,” Claxton said in praise of Carlos. “He had a slow, freshman year start, but J.C.’s one of our better players. He knows exactly what we’re trying to do on offense and defense, and he’s the key. He holds us together.”

Another sophomore guard — transfer German Plotnikov — chipped in with 11 points, and although he only scored two points and missed all three of his field goal attempts, graduate transfer forward Nelson Boachie-Yiadom’s 36 minutes were invaluable, especially in helping to slow down powerful, 6-foot-10 junior forward Nelly Junior Joseph (17 points, nine rebounds). Boachie-Yiadom also added four assists at the other end of the floor.

“Joseph is the best big in the MAAC and Nelson battled him,” Claxton said. “Without [Boachie-Yiadom], we don’t win this game. That kid is a blessing. He is a very, very high IQ guy. When our guards draw so much attention, to be able to find a big, and for that big to be able to make a play, it’s huge for us. That’s really going to make our offense click.”

Despite his inability to score as he’s used to, Estrada was also impactful, with six assists and six rebounds, matching the team-high that Dubar and Boachie-Yiadom each grabbed.

Hall of fame, legendary head coach Rick Pitino (in his third year at Iona), said of Estrada, “He didn’t force things. He’s a great player because he said, ‘Okay, they’re playing me well, let me get my teammate shots,’ and that’s what great players do.”

Claxton noted of the Gaels, “Their game plan was to stop [Estrada]. “They put their best defender on him, but other guys stepped up, and we’re going to need that [because other teams] are going to key on Aaron every [game].”

Relieved that he could count on Estrada’s teammates — in particular, Hofstra’s two leading scorers — against Iona, Claxton added, “They stepped up in a big way. With Estrada having an off night, we needed other guys to step up and these guys (again pointing his thumbs to Thomas and Dubar) did that.”

During a quick-moving and entertaining first half that featured only nine fouls and three free throw attempts, a 3-pointer from senior forward Quinn Slazinski — who led the Gaels in points (20, matching a career-high) and rebounds (10, a career-best) — started a run of a dozen straight Iona points to put the visitors ahead, 27-22, a little over eight minutes before halftime.

Hofstra countered with six consecutive made shots, the first five of which came during a 14-2 spurt that moved the Pride ahead, 36-29, before a Slazinski jumper brought the Gaels to within 43-40 by intermission.

A close start to the second half had the game tied at 51 apiece before Hofstra pulled away with nine consecutive points, capped on a steal and fast break three-point play from Dubar and a stepback 3-pointer by Estrada that gave the Pride a 60-51 lead with just over 12 minutes left.

Iona used a 13-5 run to climb back within 65-64, and although a Thomas 3-pointer pushed Hofstra’s advantage to 74-67 with 3:20 remaining, the Gales scored the next seven points to draw even again.

Thomas barely beat the shot clock, under heavy duress, on a very tough turnaround jumper from the right wing to put Hofstra up, 76-74, with 1:23 left.

“I was trying to stay confident and play off the ball, off J.C.’s penetration, and with the shot clock winding down, I always have confidence in beating a guy one-on-one,” Thomas said.

A pair of Slazinski free throws tied the game for a final time with 58.6 seconds left, but with a nice cross-court pass from the right side, Estrada found Thomas, who put the Pride ahead to stay, 79-76, on a left corner 3-pointer with 35.2 seconds to go.

Before that shot, during a timeout, “I told them to keep fighting and to stay with it,” Claxton recalled. He told the Pride, “This is our game. We came too far to let this one go. I think that’s when Tyler came down and hit that big 3, and we didn’t look back from there.”

A Joseph layup brought Iona back within one and just before Hofstra might have been called for a five-second violation, Dubar found a streaking Thomas on an inbound pass. Thomas passed to Estrada, who was fouled and calmly sank two free throws with 9.3 seconds remaining.

A missed 3-pointer at the other end led to an Iona foul and two Plotnikov free throws to ice the game.

Afterward, Pitino said, “I’ve got to give all of the credit to Hofstra. They made one big shot after another. It was a really good college basketball game.”

Although the Pride made half of its 26 shots from inside the arc, it was the 3-pointers that Pitino pointed to as the difference.

“My entire pregame speech… was all built around guarding the 3-point shot,” he said. “I’ve been around a long time. If you don’t guard the 3, you die. You must defend the 3 regardless of how many you make. We rotated poorly, but that was their really good ball movement. They’re a terrific team. Speedy does a tremendous job with his guys. He’s a terrific coach. He runs great stuff.”        

Even though Iona was able to severely contain Estrada’s scoring, Pitino cited Hofstra’s overall ability to beat Iona off the dribble as being a big headache for the Gaels.

“At halftime, we had a record-low — in my career of 45 years — three deflections. In the second half, we got 26, which was much better. They’re more difficult to guard than a passing team. They’ve got guys out there who can put it on the deck and make plays, and they all can make plays.”

Moving ahead, Pitino said of the Pride, “The only thing they’ve got to watch is bad 3s. You’ve got to take good 3s, where your players are in a position to get a second one, where you’re paint-touching and dishing and not just coming down and jacking it up. That’s the only thing [Speedy’s] got to be concerned about down the road, but they took 3s, 90 percent of the time tonight, the right way. I think they’re going to have a terrific team. I wish them nothing but the best.”

Reeling in his players a bit is something to work on, but Claxton has faith in his shooters.

“They’re big-game players,” he said. “Those are shots that they’re used to making and taking. We practice those shots every day in practice. They’re not scared of the moment. These guys, they’re going to rise to the occasion.”

Certainly, Thomas and Dubar did when Estrada was held in check. Thomas is a little more used to that as the primary scoring threat at Sacred Heart, but Dubar’s outburst could help him going forward.

“It was a great overall game,” Dubar said. “My confidence just went up after all those shots I just made, so I just want the team to keep playing like that.”

Besides losing the prior two meetings with Iona over the last two seasons, Hofstra had some extra motivation to beat the Gaels for Rick Cole, who left five successful years behind as Iona’s College Vice President of Athletics Administration to become the Pride’s Director of Athletics in 2018.

“[The win] meant a lot,” Claxton said with a contented smile. “My boss, Rick Cole, wanted to get that win, so we had to go out there and get it for him.”

Of course, passing those early tests means even more.

“[Many] of our non-conference games seem to be 50-50 games, so to get off to a 2-0 start, it’s a good feeling,” Claxton said.

Not that players like Thomas didn’t expect that outcome, even as underdogs.

“To be 2-0, it’s a great feeling,” Thomas said. “Everyone works hard on the team, so we didn’t come in here expecting to lose to anybody, even our biggest opponent. We expect to win, not to come in like, ‘We might win, we might lose,’ that’s not the mindset.”

Relishing in the good start thus far can only last for so long. Claxton said, “It feels amazing, but we’ve got to enjoy this one tonight and we’ve got to start getting to work on George Washington (Hofstra’s next opponent, at home, on Monday night) tomorrow.”

Claxton knows that continuing to schedule — and win — challenging games will only help to sustain the type of atmosphere his team wants to play in front of at The Mack, where the Pride is a dominant 54-14 over its past six seasons.

Despite that kind of success at home, it has sometimes been a struggle to draw good crowds in Hempstead. However, that was definitely not the case against Iona.

“The crowd was amazing,” Claxton said. “It should be like this. If they bring that energy every [home] game, we’re going to be good.”

Thomas described, “It was an electric crowd. [When we made] big shots, they were screaming, [and they were] disrupting [Iona’s] free throws, it was great.”

For Dubar, it was like nothing he had ever experienced before at the college level. “That was the best crowd I ever played in [front of] for college basketball. It was a great atmosphere. The energy was amazing and we just fed off of it.”

Claxton added, “We wanted to win this first home game and make sure that we gave the fans something to come back for.”

Keep passing those tests, and they will.


About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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