HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — George Washington’s Bishop attacked relentlessly but the Hofstra Pride ultimately said, “checkmate.”
Securing its first 3-0 start in five years, Hofstra remained undefeated before embarking on some extensive upcoming travel by overcoming a herculean effort from George Washington Colonials senior guard James Bishop IV in an 85-80 win at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Monday night.
Bishop was virtually unstoppable, pouring in a career-high 44 points (including 26 in the second half) on 15-of-24 shooting, while going 5-for-12 from 3-point range and 9-of-10 at the foul line.
But only two other Colonial players scored in double figures, with a big drop-off to George Washington’s next closest scorer, senior guard Brendan Adams (15 points).
Senior guard Aaron Estrada was brilliant in the opening half, outscoring Bishop, 23-18, while efficiently scoring in a variety of different ways, going 9-for-11 from the floor in the frame, including 4-of-5 from behind the arc, to help stake Hofstra to a 48-37 halftime lead.
Coming off of an atypical 10-point outing with six assists in a narrow win over Iona on Friday night, Estrada got back to what he’s used to doing — scoring, often at will. The contrast was emblematic of the reigning and preseason Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year’s mindset to do whatever is needed to get a win.
“I’m just trying to be more of a leader this year,” Estrada said. “I don’t worry about my stats or how many points I score, I just want to lead, and tonight, it came by me scoring.”
Following his first-half outburst, Estrada added 10 more points after intermission to finish with a team-best 33 points (two shy of his career-high), but he also received more help than Bishop did, with several different teammates chipping in to rally the Pride late after Hofstra blew an early, game-high 15-3 lead.
After gutting out the close, mild upset win against the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite in front of an energized home crowd on Friday, head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton was leery of his team being able to once again rise to the occasion as an eight-point favorite.
“I was worried about having a little letdown from an emotional game the other night, but to these kids’ credit, they didn’t [have one],” Claxton said. “[George Washington] is a really good team, Bishop is a very, very good scorer. But I’m happy about the way the game turned out. We made some big shots and winning plays down the stretch that led us to victory.”
Recovering from a rough start, George Washington (2-1) got back in the game quickly, with a 12-2 run that brought the Colonials to within 17-15.
A bit later, with the Pride up, 22-17, Estrada scored the next seven Hofstra points to extend his team’s lead to 29-20.
Hofstra didn’t lead by less than six points for the remainder of the half, but George Washington scored the first seven points of the second half to trigger a 17-5 spurt that gave the Colonials their first lead, 54-53, on a Bishop 3-pointer with 13:06 remaining.
Although Hofstra regained the lead by as much as four points over the next seven minutes, another Bishop trey inched George Washington back in front, 71-70, with 5½ minutes left.
That’s when Estrada, along with three others, came up big to finally give the home team some control — with nine straight Pride points — in a game Hofstra led for 33:16 (and for all but 43 seconds in the first half) to the Colonials’ 2:13 spent in the lead.
The Pride led, 79-71, with 3:26 left after sophomore guard Darlinstone Dubar (13 points, game-high eight rebounds) scored on a second-chance driving layup, redshirt senior guard Tyler Thomas (who scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half) hit a pull-up jumper, Estrada made a jumper, and redshirt freshman guard Amar’e Marshall (who scored all six of his points in the second half) drained his second 3-pointer.
The key run was just the latest example of various Hofstra players stepping up at vital times over the Pride’s first three games of the season.
“It says a lot about this team,” Claxton said. “It’s going to be somebody different every night. All these guys are capable, as you see, of making big shots. That’s what it’s going to take because they’re going to key in on [Estrada], and [other] guys are going to have to step up and make shots.”
It also helped that Hofstra was consistently excellent from 3-point range for a second straight game, a product of playing selflessly with good ball movement to find open shots. After going 14-for-29 from behind the arc against Iona, the Pride shot 14-for-26 from that distance to put away Bishop and the pesky Colonials.
“We play winning basketball, and that’s what I preach to these guys,” Claxton said. “We have some really good players, so if we just play the game the right way, we’re going to be able to score. We just play unselfish basketball.”
George Washington made one last push with five consecutive points, on a trio of Bishop free throws (after he drew a foul on a left-wing 3-point attempt) and a dunk from senior forward Hunter Dean (10 points) to draw within 79-76 with 1:37 to go, but a clutch, straightaway 3-pointer from Dubar doubled Hofstra’s lead to 82-76, with 1:03 left.
Bishop’s last four points, over the final 27.3 seconds could only shrink the Colonials’ deficit to as low as four points as a free throw by Thomas and two more from Estrada kept things out of reach for George Washington in the closing seconds.
Hofstra’s best start in years serves as a great tone-setter for a team that, after pulling off one Top 25 upset (and very nearly two others) early last season, is once again poised to challenge itself even more with some difficult trips over the next month.
After a California trip to San Jose State on Thursday, the Pride will face a tremendous test against national mid-major powerhouse Saint Mary’s two nights later. Then it’s off to Canada for three neutral-site games in as many days against Middle Tennessee, North Carolina-Greensboro, and Quinnipiac over Thanksgiving weekend. From there, the Pride will travel to former Colonial Athletic Association foe George Mason, and then to Purdue, which currently ranks 27th nationally in the Associated Press poll and 24th in the Coaches poll.
A quick stop in Brooklyn for a neutral-site game against Massachusetts then follows before Hofstra visits South Florida on Dec. 19.
With all of that looming ahead, the Pride’s undefeated start against some already challenging competition makes the California trip “a lot easier,” said Special Assistant to the Head Coach, Colin Curtin.
And, for a roster replete with some new key pieces this season to add to major returnees from last year (like Estrada, Dubar, and starting point guard Jaquan Carlos), Hofstra’s early-season success has seemed to already put the Pride ahead of the curve with the usual issues teams have when trying to effectively integrate new arrivals with other primary players who were already in place.
That, along with the chance to travel together, while seeking additional quality wins, is something that should only help the Pride team chemistry to evolve more than it already has.
“These trips should help us,” Claxton said.