HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — The Hofstra Pride had beaten up on its Colonial Athletic Association opponents five different times in seven league games this season, winning those contests by anywhere from 13 to 24 points. But with those victories all coming against four of the five worst teams in the CAA, Hofstra had yet to make a statement against a team that was considered a conference contender.
That opportunity finally came on Monday, but despite getting out to an early 10-point lead, the Pride (13-8, 6-2 CAA) was throttled by 21 points at preseason CAA favorite Towson.
Another chance came on Thursday night, however, and after a good start later yielded only a halftime tie with the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks (15-6, 5-3), Hofstra rode arguably the best half of basketball it has played this season to yet another easy CAA win, 70-46, at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex and on national television, on the CBS Sports Network.
Limiting UNCW to a scant 16 second-half points on 31.6 percent shooting (6-for-19), including 1-for-8 from 3-point range, the Pride got more than enough scoring from its two leading scorers for the season — senior transfer guards Tyler Thomas and reigning CAA Player of the Year Aaron Estrada, who took turns taking over the game offensively during different key stretches.
Thomas (in his first year with Hofstra after consecutive seasons leading Sacred Heart in scoring) posted 19 of his game-high and season-best 28 points and Estrada added 11 of his 17 points after intermission, as the duo very nearly matched the Seahawks’ scoring total for the game and almost doubled UNCW’s second-half point total.
In sharp contrast, senior guard Maleeck Harden-Hayes (the Seahawks’ only double-digit scorer) was held to just two of his team-high 13 points in the second half as no UNCW player scored more than four points after halftime.
Hofstra’s win moved the Pride into sole possession of second place in the CAA, two games behind No. 18 Charleston, which extended the nation’s longest active winning streak to 19th straight victories while becoming the nation’s first 20-game winner this season as Hofstra was running away from UNCW. The Seahawks, which entered the night tied with the Pride for second place, fell a game behind Hofstra and three spots in the standings, into fifth place.
“It was extremely important considering we only play [UNCW] once [during the regular season],” second-year head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton said. “We knew had to protect homecourt, so this was a crucial game for us, and it was for second place. We knew what was at stake.”
That wasn’t the only reason the Pride’s win was big, especially after already missing its first chance to beat a fellow CAA contender at Towson.
“Great bounce-back win,” Claxton said. “We needed this. I thought we played well against Towson, although we lost by a good amount.”
Pointing at Estrada and Thomas, Claxton continued with a laugh, “We just didn’t shoot the basketball well, mainly these two guys. But I wasn’t concerned about them. They’re shooters, they’re great players, I thought they were going to bounce back and get back on track, which they did tonight.”
In part, Claxton is able to have that kind of faith because of the confidence his stars each have in themselves.
“It’s within myself, really,” Estrada described. “Mentally, I didn’t get too down on it. My coaches tell me, ‘You put in a lot of work in the gym, so keep shooting,’ and that’s what I did to bounce back.”
Thomas added, “I got pretty good looks and knocked [my shots] down. I come to the gym and do the same routine. I believe in consistency. I don’t get too worried about the last game or the last shot.”
As he often does, Thomas started out hot, scoring Hofstra’s first seven points and nine of the Pride’s first 13 points to lead his team to a 13-4 advantage.
“He usually starts us off with our first 5-10 points [seemingly] every game,” Estrada said, prompting laughs from Claxton and Thomas as they were each seated to Estrada’s left at the postgame press conference.
Trailing 20-12 after an Estrada jumper, UNCW — which started 2-for-11 from the floor before making 10 of its next 15 shots — closed the half on an 18-10 run to forge a 30-30 tie.
But just as Thomas got Hofstra off to a quick start to open the game, Estrada — after Thomas scored the first points (on a jumper) following the break — netted eight straight points during a 10-2 Pride spurt to give Hofstra a bit of breathing room at 40-32.
Speaking of how Thomas’ offensive prowess helps his own offensive game, Estrada said, “It’s good to have somebody like that by your side to take the pressure off of myself because it opens a lot of things up for myself in the middle of the game or at the end of the game because they’re worried about him too.”
After he carried Hofstra for a while, Estrada passed the ball and the figurative baton back to Thomas, who scored 11 of the Pride’s next 19 points to give Hofstra a commanding 59-40 lead with 6:36 remaining.
That stretch ended with Estrada driving along the baseline and finding Thomas on a nice pass for a three-point play.
“I think me and ‘A’ have a good dynamic,” Thomas said of his two-man game with Estrada. “We kind of balance each other out. We share the ball, we’re both unselfish, I try to find ‘A’ when I have the ball, he tries to find me, sometimes it just happens that way.”
Thomas later added six more points as the Pride increased its lead to as much as 70-44 with 1:47 left.
He added to his 4-for-8 first-half shooting by going 7-for-10 in the second half while Estrada followed 3-for-7 shooting before halftime by going 5-for-11 in the second half. Five other Hofstra players combined for only six second-half shots (making four).
While he praised Thomas and Estrada for their leading the Pride offensively, Claxton pointed to Hofstra’s defense as being the biggest key to an impressive win.
“We locked [UNCW] up,” Claxton said. “We need to guard like that every game. [If we do], we’re going to be a hard team to beat. We know defense wins championships. If we want to win a championship, we’re going to have to do it on the defensive end. Our guys, they believe in it now and they go out there and play D.”
Estrada noted how great defense led to offense for Hofstra, which forced 16 turnovers that keyed a 16-5 edge in points off of Seahawk miscues, and which complement a 36-22 scoring advantage in the paint. “It gives us a lot of opportunity because when we get stops, we can run,” he said. “I feel like we’re a great transition team. We get whatever we want when we’re running in transition, so that opens up a lot of opportunities for us when we guard like that.”
Asked if the Pride’s 40-16 second half was the best of its season, especially considering the increased level of competition, Claxton answered, “Yeah, I would say so. We were locked in on both sides of the floor. Defensively, we tried to get a stop on every possession. We preach that. I’m proud of my guys.”
Pointing at Thomas and Estrada, Claxton continued, “On offense, these two guys just carried us,” before Claxton added with a laugh, “I just kept calling plays for them.”
Thinking of what it may take to win the CAA tournament and reach the NCAA tournament in March, Claxton said, “We’ve grown a lot. We’re getting there. We’re close. Now we’ve just got to be consistent every game. This is who we need to be if we want to win a championship. That was Hofstra Basketball tonight.”