WASHINGTON, D.C — Four digits with a dash in the middle did more to spoil the Hofstra Pride’s Colonial Athletic Association championship aspirations than any other motivator had done all season.
A note reading nothing more than “70-46” was a simple yet highly effective reminder from North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks head coach Takayo Siddle to his players about the toughness and physicality that would be needed to beat the CAA regular season champion Hofstra Pride when it would count most after the Pride humiliated the Seahawks at home, on January 19, by the same score listed on Siddle’s note.
Hofstra’s 70-46 win over UNCW that night began the Pride’s 12-game winning streak that the CAA tournament’s top seed carried into the semifinals at the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Monday night.
Ironically, it was UNCW which ended that streak in a 79-73 overtime win that sent the fourth-seeded Seahawks (24-9, 12-6 CAA) to the CAA championship game and Hofstra (24-9, 16-2 CAA) to the National Invitation Tournament as a consolation.
“We posted it in our meeting space and in our locker room,” Siddle said of the extremely brief but very powerful message before he asked sophomore forward Trazarein White (who led UNCW with 21 points and 11 rebounds), “Did it work?”
Recalling the Seahawks’ lone regular-season meeting with the Pride this year — in which a tie game at halftime turned into a 24-point Hofstra rout — White responded with a wide smile, “Yeah, it worked. The score around the locker room reminded us that they embarrassed us… so it just motivated us, like, ‘We can’t get embarrassed. We’re going to win this game.’”
Referencing the same loss, Siddle added, “In that game, we only competed for 20-25 minutes and when we weren’t competing, we weren’t tough enough, we weren’t physical enough, and like I always say to these guys, ‘At some point, if you’re not tough enough, if you’re not competing like you need to, it’s going to catch up to you.’”
Thus, the pregame speech from Siddle and his staff the night before UNCW’s CAA semifinal rematch with Hofstra centered mainly on correcting what went wrong in the second half at Hofstra in the teams’ prior meeting.
“We wanted to show them how [Hofstra] punked us in the first game that we played [against] them,” Siddle said. They were pushing us around, slamming us on the ground, and we were reacting to it in a negative way, and it just took us out of [that game] mentally… I thought [tonight] our fight was there the whole night.”
After senior forward Maleeck Harden-Hayes (17 points on 7-for-8 shooting) scored the game’s first five points, the Pride looked just like the team that flew past the Seahawks in the second half of the teams’ last matchup, using its trademark stifling defense to fuel transition offense during a 21-4 run that put Hofstra up, 21-9 after more than 7 1/2 minutes.
Although the Pride maintained the same-sized lead, at 28-16, just before the midpoint of the opening half, Hofstra’s defense began slipping as the hungrier, more aggressive Seahawks played with greater energy at each end of the floor.
UNCW — which overcame a 12-point deficit for the second straight day after rallying in the second half to beat fifth-seeded Drexel in the quarterfinals — tied the game, at 41-41, with a 25-13 surge before Hofstra settled for a precariously slim 43-42 lead at halftime.
The Seahawks scored the first seven points of the second half to lead, 49-43, and moved that margin to 53-46 on a Harden-Hayes layup before the Pride countered with a 10-2 run to retake the lead, at 56-55, on a fast break 3-pointer from senior transfer guard Tyler Thomas (14 points) with 11:11 left in regulation.
Thomas, the usually efficient sidekick to reigning two-time CAA Player of the Year, senior transfer guard Aaron Estrada (25 points on 9-for-20 shooting), had an atypically poor shooting night from inside the arc when the Pride needed him most. Although Thomas went a respectable 3-for-8 from 3-point range and made all of his free throws to go along with six rebounds, he missed three of his four 2-pointers.
Persistent, pesky, and consistently energized, UNCW fought back again, using an 11-3 spurt (which included a crowd-pleasing, fast break dunk from White) to regain its earlier margin, at 66-59, with 7:07 to go in the half.
Not going away itself, Hofstra responded with a 9-2 answer to even the game, 68-68, with 4:48 remaining in regulation.
The Pride was a pretty good 23-for-47 (48.9 percent), having made its last four shots by that point. However, Hofstra missed its last 11 shots from the floor and scored only five points — all at the foul line – over the final 9:48 (including overtime).
As the Pride finally started to get some stops down the stretch of the second half, Hofstra stayed within striking distance despite a tiebreaking 3-pointer from junior guard Donovan Newby (17 points) with 2:33 left in the half.
Fouled on a left corner 3-point attempt, Thomas calmly made three clutch free throws to tie the game again, at 71-71, with 19.5 seconds left in regulation.
The game went to overtime after a missed jumper in the lane in the final second of the half by junior guard Nick Farrar (nine points) and a near tip-in before the buzzer by Harden-Hayes.
The Seahawks scored the first three points of the extra session on a White free throw and a Harden-Hayes jumper before Estrada fouled out White and made a pair of free throws to keep the Pride within one with 1:44 to go.
“When I fouled out, it kind of hurt because I wanted to be in, but I had full faith in my teammates,” White said. “I knew they were going to pull it out.”
White’s teammates didn’t make a liar out of him.
Following a Farrar jumper, sophomore point guard Jaquan Carlos (19 points, team-high eight rebounds) had a potential game-tying, left-wing 3-pointer that was halfway down before rimming out with 18 seconds remaining.
UNCW then iced the game with three free throws over the final 14 seconds and Estrada missed a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left and Hofstra down five.
“That was a great game,” Siddle said afterward. “I’m glad we came out on the right side of it. You’ve got to give credit to Hofstra. They were the Number 1 seed for a reason, they won the regular season for a reason. They are really, really good. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Speedy and the job that he’s doing.
“We knew it would be tough. We knew it would take the ‘next play’ mentality. We knew it would take a whole lot of belief, and I just told the guys in the locker room, throughout the whole game, even going into overtime, we never wavered, not one time. We had that look in our eyes.”
Not yet satisfied, the Seahawks will next set its sights on winning the game the Pride wished it could have played in against second-seeded Charleston, the nation’s only team with 30 wins, on Tuesday night.
“The job’s not finished,” Siddle said. “We didn’t come up here to win or two games, we came up here to compete and win a championship.”
In addition to reaching a CAA tournament 13th championship game, UNCW ended Hofstra’s hopes of winning the tournament for a fifth time, adding a third different round in which that’s happened. The Seahawks previously beat the Pride twice each, in the quarterfinals (2003, 2018) and in the finals (2006, 2016 – also in overtime).
It was also Hofstra’s third time letting a top seed go to waste without a CAA tournament title as the Pride’s NCAA tournament drought reaches 22 years. The one other time the Pride
The Pride’s disheartening defeat bucked two different trends. Hofstra lost for only the third time in 20 games when leading at the half this season and the Pride, which had far more often than not won despite getting outrebounded this year had that catch up to Hofstra in a big way as the Seahawks held rebounding advantages of 43-31 overall and 14-8 on the offensive glass, which led to a key 15-5 advantage in second-chance points.
“All the credit goes to Wilmington,” said Craig “Speedy” Claxton, who in his second year as a head coach was named the CAA Coach of the Year before the tournament began. “They beat us tonight. They had a great game plan. They were the tougher, more physical team, and most of the time in college basketball, the tougher team wins, and they were the tougher team tonight, so they won the ballgame.
“They got physical with us. We weren’t able to move where we wanted to move but they’re a good defensive team. They hang their hat on the defensive end, and they defended us really well.”
Claxton ultimately viewed the loss as something that might have eventually occurred at some point given the long stretch of good play his team was on, including a record-setting 48-point quarterfinal win over eighth-seeded William & Mary a day earlier.
“To win 12 games in a row and to be on point [for that long], you’re bound to have an off night, an off stretch, and that’s kind of what happened tonight,” Claxton said. “We just got cold at the wrong time. We got the same looks that we always get, we just didn’t make them tonight.”
With at least one NIT game still left after finishing as the CAA’s top seed, Hofstra will have a new focus in the coming days, and the status of the Pride’s best player and whether he’ll choose to return for one more season next year is on hold for now, especially with Estrada still reeling from not reaching the CAA title game.
“I don’t think that any college player doesn’t want to be playing in March, so it’s obviously heartbreaking,” Estrada said. “I’m a senior, I don’t know what I’m doing next year yet, so it’s just heartbreaking for me. I know how much work this team put in each and every day. I feel like we deserve to play in the [NCAA] tournament… but tonight, UNC-Wilmington was just the better team.’
Regretful that a good game from his point guard went to waste at the worst time, Claxton said in praise of Carlos, “J.C. is great. He’s our floor leader, he’s our general, and that’s what we expect of him. For him to have the type of game that he had, it kind of sucks that we lost because it’s kind of like a wasted game, but he’s going to be a really good player in years to come.”
Looking ahead while also reflecting on Hofstra’s loss, Claxton said, “We’re taking steps in the right direction. We still feel like we’re the better team, but they won the game.
“We wanted to win this ballgame and go compete for a championship. I’ve been telling this team from Day One that we have a championship-caliber team and we [were] playing like it. It just kinda sucks that we fell a little short of our goal, but we’ll bounce back. There’s still a lot of ball game to be played.”