HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — Not even missing its best player could keep the Hofstra Pride from dominating its Long Island neighbor from one county to the east in conference play the way Hofstra had done over prior non-conference matchups with the Stony Brook Seawolves.
With the reigning Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, senior transfer guard Aaron Estrada, unexpectedly sidelined due to food poisoning, Hofstra convincingly beat Stony Brook, 79-58, before a Winter Homecoming sellout crowd of 3,901 at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Saturday.
Of course, it helped the Pride (17-8, 10-2 CAA) that the Seawolves (8-16, 4-7 CAA) were without their own leading scorer, senior guard Tyler Stephenson-Moore, but not having Estrada was potentially far more impactful for Hofstra.
“I was going to play but the doctor couldn’t find my vein to give me an IV,” said Estrada, who as the CAA’s leading scorer this season, is poised to win a second consecutive conference Player of the Year award. Estrada, who began feeling ill on Friday night after eating at the team training facility, indicated that he expects to be ready for Hofstra’s next game, at Northeastern, on Wednesday, when the Pride begins the final third of its conference schedule.
Before that contest, Estrada’s teammates had his back, as first-place Hofstra pulled away from CAA newcomer Stony Brook to win for the fifth straight time, for the 25th time in 31 all-time games with Stony Brook, and to claim victory in the inaugural CAA meeting between the schools.
Referencing Hofstra’s main team color in contrast with the Seawolves’ primary red, head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton boasted with a playful smile afterward, “The Island is blue and it will remain blue. That’s all I have to say.”
Forced into the primary scoring role, Estrada’s usual sidekick, senior transfer guard Tyler Thomas, had his latest of several fast starts he’s had this season, making his first six shots and scoring 12 of the Pride’s first 14 points to help Hofstra to an early eight-point lead before Stony Brook fought back with a 12-4 run to tie the game at 20 apiece.
After finishing the opening half with 16 points, Thomas added 13 more after intermission to establish a new personal Hofstra high of 29 points (on 13-for-17 shooting) to lead all scorers.
“I just tried to get to my spots, stay aggressive and… I believe in myself,” Thomas said. “I don’t think my mindset changes. I’m pretty aggressive to start games with Estrada there. Estrada wasn’t in the game today, so I knew I had to stay aggressive.”
Thomas got some balanced help from graduate guard Bryce Washington (who in Estrada’s absence, made only his second start of the season) and a pair of reserves, sophomore transfer guard German Plotnikov and graduate transfer forward Warren Williams. That trio added 14 points each, with Washington scoring 12 in the second half. The latter two from that group accounted for all of the scoring in Hofstra’s decisive 28-2 advantage off the bench.
“I thought it was a total team effort today,” Claxton said. “Warren and German were great off the bench. J.C. (sophomore point guard Jaquan Carlos) was our floor general… Bryce was really good and Tyler Thomas, he just kept us in the game all game long. He put us on his back from start to finish, and we kind of rode him. We needed that because we were without Aaron. Everybody stepped up.
“We weren’t really looking at any one guy to take the place of Estrada. We knew that it was going to take a total team effort, which it did. I’m proud of every single guy that played today.”
With the Pride leading only 28-27, Plotnikov scored the next seven points (on a transition layup, a contested corner 3-pointer, and a driving layup) to start a 13-2 half-closing spurt that gave Hofstra a 41-29 halftime lead.
The Seawolves got back in the game coming out of the locker room with the first eight points of the second half, but Plotnikov and Thomas each hit jumpers as the Pride scored the next six points to go up, 47-37.
Stony Brook stayed within 52-45, but Washington and Williams scored four points each to double that margin at 60-46 with 9:01 remaining and the Seawolves never got closer than 62-53 the rest of the way.
Hofstra scored the next 10 points — seven from Thomas (on a 3-pointer and a couple of turnaround jumpers) and a 3-pointer by Washington — to put the game away, at 72-53, with 4:45 left. A second-chance 3-pointer from Plotnikov in the final minute provided the largest margin of the game and closed the scoring.
Helping the Pride down the stretch was Hofstra’s largest home crowd of the season, which was given creative t-shirts that read “516 > 631,” a reference to the Long Island telephone area codes of the Pride’s Nassau County and the Seawolves’ Suffolk County.
Asked how Hofstra could draw similar crowds at The Mack for Hofstra’s remaining three home games of the season, Claxton joked, “Give away more free t-shirts!” before later adding, “It was a great atmosphere. I wish every game would be like that. To have a crowd like that is going to raise these kids’ games. Playing for that crowd? Who wouldn’t get up for that?”
Withstanding two separate streaks (one in each half) of five straight misses, the Pride otherwise shot a very efficient 31-for-46 while holding the Seawolves to 41.8 percent shooting (23-for-55).
Posting his second career double-double (his first with Hofstra), Thomas grabbed a team-best 11 rebounds and Carlos added 10 boards (along with 10 assists and one turnover despite missing all eight of his shots from the floor) to lift the Pride to a 34-26 edge on the glass as Hofstra outrebounded an opponent for just the ninth time in 25 games this season.
“Knowing we’ve got to keep getting better at rebounding, I knew Warren and (graduate forward) Nelson (Boachie-Yiadom) were boxing out, so I knew I could help them by getting in and [rebounding],” the six-foot Carlos said.
“That’s usually Aaron getting those rebounds,” Claxton added with a laugh. “It’s tough to get ten rebounds as a guard.”
Hofstra’s clear supremacy didn’t only continue against Stony Brook, but also against much of the conference this season. Aside from a pair of four-point wins over fellow CAA contenders, second-place Charleston and fourth-place Towson, Hofstra’s other eight conference wins this year have been by at least 13 points with half of those victories coming by at least 20 points, a strong sign that the Pride has been locked in no matter the conference opponent.
“We are extremely focused right now,” Claxton said. “We know what’s at stake. I’m sure everybody does, and we’re going to go from here. There’s no looking back. As my man J.C. (Carlos) would say, ‘There’s no u-turns.’”