The Hofstra Pride’s dream of reaching the NCAA tournament agonizingly ended as a top seed last week in overtime. This time, the Pride took out a top seed and joyously extended its season in extra time.
Eight days after a late comeback fell short, with Hofstra losing in overtime to fourth-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington as the No. 1 seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Washington, D.C., the Pride was facing the excruciating prospect of having an otherwise stellar season end by being eliminated from two different tournaments — in an extra session — over its final two games of the season.
But then it was gut-check time.
Overcoming a myriad of difficult obstacles that included a slow start, a hostile crowd road crowd at Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway, NJ, some very questionable officiating that didn’t go its way, its best player fouling out long before an improbable comeback could be completed, and pulling out a game that seemed out of reach with little time left, Hofstra (25-9) shocked the top-seeded Rutgers Scarlet Knights, 88-86, in overtime, in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on Tuesday night.
Senior transfer guard Tyler Thomas ended a night of back-and-forth rollercoaster of emotions with a tiebreaking jumper off of the left elbow with 9.3 seconds remaining. But it wasn’t until Rutgers — which entered the game regarded as this year’s biggest NCAA tournament at-large snub — missed a runner in the lane and the Pride was able to safely tap the loose ball away from the paint as time ran out that Hofstra could finally exhale with just its third Division I postseason win all-time (all in the NIT) and its first since the Pride won consecutive NIT games in 2006.
Thomas, who finished with a game-high 25 points, and who shot a subpar 3-for-10 from 3-point range, made all eight of his shots from inside the arc — but none was sweeter than the one that put Hofstra up for good.
Long before that, the Pride very effectively counterpunched every blow the Scarlet Knights delivered and even against some that came from other sources.
Former Hofstra head coach Tim Welsh (who never coached a game with the school after losing that opportunity to a DWI charge in 2010) noted during an ESPNU telecast of the contest that Rutgers fans seemed to be influencing the officials’ calls at times.
“That call wasn’t made by the officials, it was made by the fans and the officials followed,” Walsh said at one point. At another time, Welsh labeled the home fans the game’s “fourth official.”
With everything seemingly mounting against the visitors, Hofstra calmly weathered the game’s only double-digit deficit (at 14-4) to tie Rutgers, 30-30, late in the first half.
It was about that time when Welsh told a national television audience that, “Both of these teams could have won games in the NCAA tournament,” before adding at intermission, “This is a very good game with two really good teams.”
The Scarlet Knights (whose season ended at 19-15) regained a slight edge, 40-35, at halftime, and scored six straight — after Thomas started the second-half scoring with a 3-pointer — to go up eight before the Pride kept clawing its way back.
Not just Thomas, but all five Hofstra starters scored in double figures, including sophomore guard Darlinstone Dubar (17 points), two-time CAA Player of the year, senior transfer guard Aaron Estrada (13 points), sophomore point guard Jaquan Carlos (12 points plus a team-best five assists), and graduate transfer forward Nelson Boachie-Yiadom (season-high 10 points). Sophomore transfer guard German Plotnikov also chipped in seven points, making all three of his shots.
Estrada gave Hofstra its first lead, 54-53, on a 3-pointer with 12:28 left before a Thomas jumper capped an 18-7 Pride surge to extend the margin to three.
However, moments later, Estrada picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench with 10:57 remaining in the half. By the time he returned, Rutgers was in the midst of a 9-3 run that put the Scarlet Knights ahead, 62-56, with 7:54 to go in regulation.
Just 1:03 later, Estrada fouled out for the first time in his 99-game college career on a highly suspect blocking call with the Hofstra down four.
Sans its best scorer and trailing by six after two Scarlet Knight free throws and with time winding down, things began to look hopeless for the Pride, but Hofstra kept battling.
Jumpers from Dubar and Thomas kept the Pride within three and another jumper by Thomas made it 70-69, Rutgers with 1:30 left in the half, but the Scarlet Knights scored the next four points to push their lead to five with only a half-minute remaining in regulation.
As things once again looked bleak for Hofstra, Thomas drilled a clutch 3-pointer. After a missed free throw at the other end and then a missed 3 from Carlos, Boachie-Yiadom was in the right place at just the right time to coral an offensive rebound (one of his team-high eight boards overall) and get a putback to tie the game, 74-74, with only 2.2 seconds to go before overtime, which is where the teams were headed after Rutgers was unable to score on its next possession.
The Pride, on four occasions, went ahead by four points in the extra frame, the last time, on a straightaway 3-pointer that Dubar was fortunate enough to bank in with 1:28 left, but the Scarlet Knights scored the next four points to tie the game one last time, 86-86, with 32 seconds left.
That set up Thomas (Sacred Heart’s leading scorer the prior two seasons) to be the hero a little while after ESPNU play-by-play announcer Connor Onion declared about the thrilling battle, “Are you serious with this game?!”
Using a high screen from Boachie-Yiadom, Thomas dribbled to just off the left elbow before knocking down a game-winning pull-up, 17-foot jumper.
“When Aaron went down, I had to step up, and D-Stone stepped up, and other guys had to step up,” Thomas said afterward. “When everyone’s playing hard, it’s kind of easy to stay in the zone.”
A former Hofstra legend as a player, second-year head coach, and this year’s CAA Coach of the Year, Craig “Speedy” Claxton (who, with a thigh injury, missed the Pride’s only other NIT matchup with Rutgers, a 13-point Hofstra loss in the same building) got a measure of redemption in a new role 24 years later.
Not only did the Pride shockingly advance to the second round of the NIT, but Hofstra will have another unexpected home game, hosting the winner of Wednesday night’s opening-round tilt between unseeded Virginia Tech and fourth-seeded Cincinnati, both of whom will not have their own home floors available through the NIT quarterfinals before the tournament shifts to Las Vegas for the semifinals and finals.
Taking in the first step of trying for an NIT title, Claxton said, “A great team effort from my guys all the way around. “Whoever stepped on the court gave us a spark… I’m really proud of this team’s effort.
“We didn’t give up. A lot of teams, when they lose their star player, they tend to give up but there’s no ‘give up’ in this team… we kept our composure… they kept battling.”
Boachie-Yiadom added, “Guys were really fighting every possession. Guys were boxing out, guys were diving on the floor, trying to get deflections — it really matters, every single thing matters. I’m so proud of these guys.
“Postseason tournaments are like heavyweight boxing matches. You come out swinging, then they hit you, and you hit them back, and eventually, and someone’s going to fall eventually. We stuck together every time. It didn’t matter if [Rutgers] made a run. We just kept pushing each other and kept believing.”
Claxton jumped in, “That’s what makes this team special. They really play for each other.”
And because they did until the end at Rutgers, they’ll continue to get the chance to do so for at least one more game if not longer.