HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — Although the Hofstra Pride caught a break with the Delaware Blue Hens’ best player — leading scorer and starting point guard Jameer Nelson Jr. — out with an injury, second-year head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton was wary of trying to beat Delaware for the second time in just 16 days.
His team quickly put those concerns to rest, especially while setting an early tone defensively, before coasting to an easy 86-62 Colonial Athletic Association win at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Saturday.
Offensively, Hofstra (12-7, 5-1 CAA) shot 49.2 percent (31-for-63) — including 57.6 percent (19-for-33) in the second half — and had good balance, with senior transfer guard Aaron Estrada and graduate forward Warren Williams leading the way with 17 points apiece, transfer guard Tyler Thomas scoring 16 points, and sophomore point guard Jaquan Carlos adding 14 points in the Pride’s 101st all-time meeting with its biggest rival dating back to the America East Conference.
But the Pride’s defense, which especially shut Delaware (10-8, 2-3 CAA) down over the first 15 minutes and which held the Blue Hens to just 33.3 percent shooting (20-for-60), was the main impetus for assuaging any of Claxton’s pre-game qualms about his team being paid back for Hofstra’s 14-point win at Delaware (despite Nelson Jr.’s team-leading 22 points) on Dec. 29.
“I thought we were really dialed into the game plan and our guys were really good on the defensive end,” Claxton said.
Hofstra’s defense was particularly stingy in the paint, where the Pride outscored the Blue Hens, 34-20.
“That was the Number 1 key, was [to] protect the paint,” Claxton noted. “Our guys were tremendous all [game] with double teams and rotations.”
They were also active with their hands, getting 13 steals, led by five from Carlos and four from Estrada.
“We had a very good scout,” Carlos said. “We watched a lot of film, knowing [Delaware’s] plays, knowing our rotations, when to double or not, and [myself], just having my teammates’ backs, trying to be the defensive leader for my guys.”
Thanks to its suffocating defense from the outset, Hofstra led, 15-10, despite the Pride missing 12 of its first 16 shots, with Estrada and Thomas combining to start just 1-for-9.
Meanwhile, Delaware missed 15 of its first 20 field goal attempts. By then, Hofstra had gone on a 14-1 run and a larger 24-7 spurt to break the game open with a 29-11 lead.
The Blue Hens finally warmed up a bit, making four straight shots (the only time they made more than two consecutive shots all game), to cut the deficit nearly in half (down 10), but the Pride led, 37-25, at halftime, and doubled that margin, starting the second half on a 20-8 run to take a commanding 57-33 lead with 13:11 remaining.
Hofstra, which won its fourth straight game, never led by fewer than 20 points the rest of the way, going up by at least 25 for the second straight game, and by as many as 27 (on two occasions) in the final 1½ minutes.
While Estrada (the reigning and preseason CAA Player of the Year) and Thomas continue to lead the Pride in scoring for the season, the key boosts Hofstra has received lately from Williams and Carlos were again on display.
“He’s a load down there (in the post) and whenever he’s in the game, we’re going to keep going to him,” Claxton said of Williams, who finished a point shy of his Hofstra high of 18 points he scored in the Pride’s previous game. “He changes the game when he comes in for us.”
Carlos, who didn’t score more than six points in any game as a freshman last year, scored in double figures for a sixth time this season, for the fourth time in the past six games, and for the third consecutive contest.
Finally figuring out how to make the attention Estrada receives help his own offensive game, Carlos said, “I know that with a player like Aaron Estrada, everybody’s going to be focused on him and my offensive game will open up.”
Claxton added of Carlos, “He had a rough freshman year… but he was patient and he’s seeing it now. He’s a key contributor to our team. He’s our leader, [a] vocal leader, [an] emotional leader, and the sky’s the limit for this kid. I’m really proud of him.”
In light of the Blue Hens’ prior two games, each likewise played without Nelson Jr., Claxton declared the victory, “A great win for us. [Delaware] almost beat (first-place) Charleston (on the road) and they beat (CAA preseason favorite) Towson (by 13 points) the other night. Coming into the game, we knew they were going to bring it and we wanted to be ready, and we had to defend [our] home court, which we did. I’m proud of my guys.”
Calling the effort Hofstra’s most complete of the season thus far, Claxton said, “We pretty much controlled this game from start to finish. We started well and ended well, which I’m extremely proud of because if we want to be a championship team, we have to play complete games like we did today.”
It may have taken until game time to completely put Claxton at ease about the Pride not falling into a complacent trap against the Blue Hens, but some of those anxieties were lessened earlier in the week.
“[My players] were locked in the last couple days in practice and this morning at shootaround, so I had a pretty good feeling that they were going to be ready to play, which they were,” Claxton said.
Williams added, “I feel like the only thing you can really control [during] the game is your energy, your effort, and how we execute.”
All of those things were generally in very good supply for the Pride throughout the first third of Hofstra’s conference schedule.
The only blemish in CAA play this season for Hofstra (which later in the day moved into sole possession of second place) was blowing a 13-point lead with under 10 minutes left (as a 12-point favorite) before losing at the buzzer against North Carolina A&T in the Pride’s CAA home opener.
Aside from that, the Pride has won its other conference games this season by 14, 16, 13, 20, and 24 points.
“We’re definitely on our way but we’ve got a lot more work to do,” Carlos said. “We could be way better than where we are right now, and we’re going to get there by the time the CAA playoffs start.”