HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — It wasn’t the ending the Hofstra Pride wanted but it was the culmination of a season that the team and its fans could be proud of.
After battling a bigger, more physical team (the likes of which Hofstra is not used to facing) very well for one half, the unseeded Pride ultimately succumbed to the fourth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats, 79-65, in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Saturday.
Two-time Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, senior transfer guard Aaron Estrada, led Hofstra (25-10) with 18 points and eight assists but missed 13 of his first 17 shots and finished a dismal 7-for-24 from the floor.
Second-year head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton said of Estrada, “He’s not used to playing against that kind of size and length on a nightly basis. They kind of just wore him down. They were switching defenders and giving him different looks. That’s difficult to deal with.”
Estrada’s normal sidekick all season, fellow senior transfer guard, Tyler Thomas, and sophomore transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar each added 16 points but no one else scored more than four points for the Pride, which was held to just 37.5 percent (24-for-64) shooting.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati (23-12) — which shot significantly better, at 52.6 percent (30-for-57) — had four scorers in double figures, led by redshirt senior transfer guard Landers Nolley II (20 points), followed by redshirt sophomore forward Viktor Lahkin (16 points), graduate guard David DeJulius (15 points and a game-best nine assists with only one turnover), and senior forward Ody Oguama (14 points), who also grabbed game-highs of 11 total rebounds and five offensive boards.
Coming off a thrilling, two-point overtime win at top-seeded Rutgers, Hofstra was hoping to continue a run in the NIT after losing in the CAA semifinals, but the stronger Bearcats, which won a first-round home game against Virginia Tech, eventually wore the Pride down.
Cincinnati, wearing its home white uniforms as the lone seeded team in the game, was supposed to host the contest but was forced to travel due to maintenance being done on the Bearcats’ home floor.
Jumping quickly on Hofstra (which was clad in its road blue uniforms on its home court), Cincinnati scored seven straight points to lead, 12-5 and extended that to a nine-point edge three different times in the opening half before a Dubar 3-pointer capped a 14-5 Pride run that tied the game, 31-31.
An 8-1 answer moved the Bearcats back in front, 40-32, but an alley-oop dunk from Dubar and a Thomas 3-pointer in the final minute of the half brought Hofstra to within just three points by halftime.
The Pride had stayed in the game to that point by going 6-for-11 from 3-point range and holding a 9-0 edge in fast break points in the opening half.
Head coach Wes Miller, in his second year at Cincinnati after 10 mostly successful years at North Carolina-Greensboro noted, “They hit six [3-pointers] and they got some easy ones in transition, so those were the two things we talked about at halftime. I really how we came out and defended in the second half.”
Cincinnati (which lost as a four seed in the American Athletic Conference semifinals to Houston, the second overall seed and the Midwest region’s top seed in the NCAA tournament) started the second half on a 9-4 spurt to go up, 48-41, but Hofstra was able to stay within six on a few occasions, the last time, on an Estrada driving layup that cut the Bearcats’ lead to a manageable 57-51 with 10:23 remaining.
However, a game-deciding 16-3 Cincinnati surge over the next 5:07 gave the Bearcats the game’s largest lead, at 73-54, with 5:16 left as the Pride never got closer than 13 thereafter.
“Down the stretch, I feel like we set a tone that it was just hard for them to get back in a rhythm,” Nolley II noted.
“Their physicality,” Claxton said, was the major difference in the outcome. “They’re a high-major program. Their bigger at every position and I think ultimately, that kind of just wore us down throughout the course of the game. I would say their size and strength [were the differences].”
Those physical advantages helped Cincinnati have a key 42-27 rebounding edge, led by Oguama.
“We knew we had a size advantage and that was a factor at the rim,” Miller said. “Ody really set a tone early in the game on the offensive glass and the defensive glass and then I thought he really changed the game the way he defended ball screens in the first half. He gave us a huge lift.”
Oguama added, “I always crash the glass, trying to get my hands on loose balls and I just happen to stack them up throughout the course of the game.”
Making sure his team didn’t take Hofstra lightly, Miller said, “Our guys don’t have this perspective, but I have the perspective of coaching a regular season championship in a mid-major league and you understand what that takes, and the job that’s done, and how good of a team that (Hofstra) is. I don’t think our guys even understand how well we played today, on the road, against a team of this caliber, but I certainly have an appreciation for that. That is one heck of a basketball team.”
Continuing to praise the Pride while recalling when Claxton starred as one of the best players in Hofstra history (from 1996-2000), Miller added, “I told our guys before the game, ‘You’re playing a team that went 16-2 in a mid-major conference.’ I spent ten years in the Southern Conference, which is similar to the Colonial. If you go 16-2 and you win the regular season, you’re one hell of a team. The job that Speedy’s done here — I remember watching Speedy play here — that’s probably the best Hofstra team since the guy that’s [now] coaching was playing [for the same school]. That’s one heck of a basketball team. Our guys showed a lot of maturity taking them really seriously.”
With the Bearcats set to meet either second-seeded Colorado or Utah Valley in the NIT quarterfinals on Tuesday or Wednesday, Miller said, “I’m proud of the win. I’m glad that we’re still playing basketball. “It’s an honor and privilege to play in a national postseason tournament. There are only two of them, the NCAA and the NIT, so if you’re invited or you earned the right to be here… you’ve got to be grateful for the opportunity.
“There’s a lot of people that are on spring break. We’re trying to set a standard at Cincinnati that at this time of year, we play basketball. Certainly, we want it to be in the NCAA but I’m proud that we’re starting to build that mentality in our program.”
Oguama added, “A lot of teams don’t get this opportunity. We’re one of the few Division I teams playing right now. We wish it could’ve been the NCAA [tournament], but to keep playing, to keep being around guys like this (Miller and Nolley II), there’s nothing better.”
After going 21-11 with no postseason games beyond the CAA tournament in his rookie season as a head coach last year, Claxton reflected on taking the next step in trying to follow his dream of building a perennial winner with the program he led to the NCAA tournament as a player in 2000.
“It’s been a fun two years,” Claxton said. “Hopefully, we can continue to get better. We won 21 games last year, we won 25 this year, and it’s all about improving. We lost in the [CAA] quarterfinals last year, lost in the semifinals this year, and as long as we take steps and move in the right direction, we’re happy.”
Not that long after an appreciative Hofstra crowd gave Estrada and Thomas a standing ovation as they exited the game (perhaps for the final time in their respective Pride careers) with 1:01 left in the game, Claxton said, of his entire team, “They were a joy to be around. They made coming to work fun. The character both on and off the court, it just sucks that we won’t get to be around each other anymore, this group, collectively, because we had such a special group.
“We had a special year. This was a special team. These guys gave us everything they had every single day. It wasn’t too often that we had bad practices and bad games, and that says a lot. It’s a long year and there are some long days, but not with this group.”
It’s a roster that could change drastically next season or maybe not so much, depending on what Estrada and Thomas each decide to do with an extra year of eligibility afforded to them because of the Covid-shortened season in 2019-20.
Claxton may have provided a hint that at least Thomas may be returning for another season at Hofstra.
When Thomas was asked about some final memories as he may possibly end his college career with the Pride, the transfer who led Sacred Heart in scoring the prior two years began to answer before Claxton quickly interjected, “It’s not over. Don’t ask that question. Next question.”
Instead, Thomas spoke about being a strong 1-2 punch this season with Estrada.
“An amazing teammate, a better person,” Thomas said of Estrada, who was not at the postgame press conference with Claxton and Thomas. “I think both of us had no egos and that’s why we worked out so well. It didn’t matter if he scored 30 and I had 10 or if I scored 25 and he had 10, it just didn’t matter.”
Although Hofstra failed in its attempt to qualify for the NCAA tournament for what would have been the second time in four years and to actually play in that tournament for the first time in 22 years (since the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled due to a global Covid pandemic right after the Pride won the CAA tournament that year), there were still plenty of accolades to enjoy this year and on which to build next season.
Hofstra won its third CAA regular season title in five years and its fourth in eight years. Estrada won his second straight CAA Player of the Year award, while Thomas made the All-CAA Second Team, and sophomore point guard Jaquan Carlos not only made great strides offensively after a rough freshman season but made the CAA All-Defensive team. Claxton was also named the CAA Coach of the Year. And the victory over Rutgers was Hofstra’s third Division I postseason win (all in the NIT) in its 59-year program history, and the Pride’s first since winning consecutive NIT games in 2006.
“A hell of a year for my guys,” Claxton said. “I’m super proud of them. The only bad part is we don’t get to be around them anymore. We are definitely taking steps in the right direction.”