HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — If it were only about winning regular season conference championships, the Hofstra Pride would be considered a Colonial Athletic Association dynasty.
Finishing its most dominant regular season in its 22 years in the CAA with its latest blowout win, an 84-52 thrashing of the Northeastern Huskies before a Senior Day crowd of 3,616 at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Saturday, Hofstra will enter next month’s CAA tournament in Washington D.C. as the top seed for the third time in five years and for the fourth time in the past eight seasons.
Taking the floor just as Charleston was wrapping up a 40-point home win over Stony Brook, the Pride (which last tasted defeat on January 16 at Towson) knew it had to win an 11th straight game to keep the top seed.
Hofstra (23-8, 16-2 CAA) ultimately earned that designation by virtue of a tiebreaking four-point win at Charleston on January 28, one of only three Charleston losses this season and Charleston’s only home defeat this year.
The Pride was otherwise mostly on cruise control during conference play, winning 13 CAA games by at least 13 points, with seven of those coming by at least 20 points, and three by at least 29 points.
While Hofstra posted its best regular season mark as a CAA member, the Pride also joined Charleston in making some conference history. In the 20th season that the CAA has played an 18-game conference schedule, Hofstra and Charleston are the first teams to each go at least 16-2 in league play during the same season.
In its final tune-up before the conference tournament, the Pride was led by three pre-game honorees, getting 23 points from senior transfer guard Tyler Thomas, 19 points and nine rebounds from graduate transfer forward Warren Williams, and 16 points from senior transfer guard Aaron Estrada, who is expected to receive his second consecutive CAA Player of the Year award before the league tournament begins on March 3.
After scoring the first five points and twice leading by seven points over the first 10 minutes, Hofstra allowed Northeastern (10-19, 6-12 CAA) to hang around and take its only lead, 21-20, with 6:36 left in the opening half.
But the Pride flipped the switch from there, scoring 16 of the next 18 points before settling for a 38-25 halftime lead.
Hofstra broke the game open with the first nine points of the second half, to go up, 47-25. The Pride led by no fewer than 18 from there, taking its biggest lead at 78-44 with 4:23 remaining.
Following the win, head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton, sitting down for the postgame media press conference, proudly placed his hand on the CAA Regular Season Champions trophy, and with a wide smile, said, “Welcome home.”
Claxton then added, “The champs are in the building. We’re here. I’m proud of my guys, especially these two (pointing at Williams and Thomas seated on each side of Claxton). A really good job off the bench [by Williams] and Ty carried us all game, along with Estrada.”
Thanks in part to Williams’ play inside, Hofstra doubled Northeastern in the paint in each half, 20-10 before halftime, and 24-12, afterward.
“He’s the best big in the league,” Claxton said of Williams. “When he’s playing like that, we’re extremely hard to guard because I think we have the best backcourt in the league with Estrada and Tyler, and when [Williams] is coming off the bench and he’s giving us 16, 18, 20 points, we’re extremely hard to guard.”
Although he often has a lot to say about his team at other times, Claxton — one of Hofstra’s all-time greatest players and a former NBA first-round draft pick and NBA champion who played 334 NBA games — was left somewhat speechless when asked what it meant to win his first championship as a second-year head coach, following eight years as a Pride assistant.
“All you guys know this is more than a job to me,” said Claxton, whose accomplishment was witnessed from the stands by Hall of Fame former coach Jay Wright, who recruited Claxton and coached the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 Hofstra teams to America East Conference championships in the same building.
Claxton finished his stellar college career as a senior during the first of those two years, the Pride’s last two in the America East before Hofstra moved on to the CAA. Hofstra has yet to return to the NCAA tournament since that time, although the Pride earned its only NCAA tournament berth out of the CAA by winning the CAA tournament three years ago before the NCAA tournament was subsequently canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“To come back and to be able to win this thing as a coach, words really can’t say anything more about it,” Claxton said.
Being part of the Hofstra family for more than two decades is something that Claxton has instilled in his players, especially the newcomers.
“We’ve got a special group of guys,” said Thomas, who joined the Pride this year after leading Sacred Heart in scoring each of the prior two seasons. “It’s really like a family unit. I had never been a part of a team that’s so close. We say ‘family’ a lot but I think we mean it. We’ve always got each other’s backs. No one’s out there being selfish. We just want to hoop, we just want to win.”
Williams, who came to Hofstra after four productive years with Manhattan, said, “I made the right decision,” a comment which drew laughter from Thomas and Claxton before Thomas added with a big smile, “We both made the right decisions.”
Chiming in, Claxton again placed his hands on the championship trophy and said with a wide grin, “All you have to [do] is look right here. They made a perfect decision.”
It may not have seemed that way after the Pride blew a 13-point lead with 10 minutes left and lost its CAA home opener by two points at the buzzer to conference newcomer North Carolina A&T, leaving Hofstra 1-1 in league play.
But the Pride didn’t lose another home game the rest of the regular season while winning 14 of its last 15 games overall.
“I think that helped us focus,” Claxton noted. “That opened our eyes. We knew [then] that we can’t let any opponent back in the game when we have a big lead like we did.”
Thomas later said, “We’ve stayed very focused. We know that every team is coming in trying to knock us off and we kind of take pride in throwing the first punches, [to] keep throwing punches and [to not] let them back in the game.”
With a fierce competitive look on his face, Claxton added, “We love when they call the first time out. That fuels us.”
Once Hofstra had put itself in the regular season championship mix with a 7-2 conference record by January 26, the Pride took full advantage of seeing Charleston go from a 9-0 start in CAA play to losing consecutive games (to Hofstra and at Drexel on a night when the Pride paid Towson back at home for an earlier road loss).
“Right after we beat Charleston and Towson (at home, on February 2), we were in the locker room, and I told these guys, ‘We’re in the driver’s seat if Charleston messes up and loses one game, it’s our league,’” Claxton recalled. “To these kids’ credit, there was no looking back. Fortunately for us, Charleston lost [at] Drexel that night and we were full steam ahead. We took it game by game, but there was no letup. We knew what was at stake and we had tunnel vision.”
Hofstra’s past CAA history (with a lone conference tournament title to show for earning three prior top seeds in the league) suggests differently, but Claxton believes that demonstrating supremacy over the longer haul is more difficult to accomplish than getting hot for a few days in the conference tournament.
“Honestly, this championship is a lot harder to win than the tournament,” Claxton said. “To go 16-2 is unbelievable and it’s extremely hard because you really have to come out and play hard, and play the right way night in and night out. You can’t have any off nights. That’s hard to do.”
However, Claxton knows, of course, that the biggest goal is still to earn another NCAA tournament berth by winning the conference tournament.
To that end, taking the first step of being regular season champions has its value.
“It’s extremely important,” Claxton said. “This is one championship down.”
And while it’s not yet the title that all CAA teams covet the most, Hofstra believes that its latest regular season championship can help to win that one as well.
“I think it fuels us in the right way,” Williams said. “I think it’s gonna help us focus even more because we got a taste of victory and we just want to keep it going.”
Thomas added. “It’s definitely going to make us more focused, We have a great group of guys who like to work hard and there are still some things to fix out there, so we’re not satisfied.”
Crediting his players and the assistant coaches who are now in the role he used to be in, Claxton said, “I’m a lucky coach… this journey started way back in June. I told these guys from Day One that we have a championship team and luckily, they didn’t make a liar out of me.
“They proved me right… but it’s not over yet. We still have another one that we’re going for… we’re going to go down there to D.C. and hopefully win three games in three days.”