HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — Third-year head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton remembers how long it took for his team to develop last season enroute to ultimately capturing a share of a conference title and the top seed in the Colonial (now Coastal) Athletic Association tournament.
So, despite going from a season-opening win at Princeton last year to suffering a home loss against the same foe in its second game this season, patience — for now — may be the Hofstra Pride’s biggest virtue.
After beginning its new season on Monday with a 53-point home dismantling of Division III St. Joseph’s (Long Island), Hofstra (1-1) was unable to contain sophomore forward Caden Pierce, whose career-high 26 points and 15 rebounds (one short of a career-best) led the Princeton Tigers (2-0) to a 74-67 win before 3,217 fans on Hoops for Troops Night, on Veteran’s Day eve, at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on November 10th.
Outscored 11-3 off the bench, the Tigers had three other starters (besides Pierce) score in double figures, with junior guard Blake Peters tallying 15 points, Canadian sophomore forward Xaivian Lee adding 14 points, and senior guard Matt Allocco chipping in 13 points.
Princeton, which led for more than 30½ minutes, gradually pulled away after a tight first half that featured four ties and seven lead changes ended with the Tigers taking a slim 30-29 advantage at halftime.
Head coach Mitch Henderson (in his 13th year at Princeton) didn’t stick around long enough to see his squad eventually take control. Just 7:57 into the contest, Henderson received a technical foul after vehemently arguing what seemed to be an obvious travel called against Pierce. That only seemed to enrage Henderson more, as the coach who led the Tigers to an unlikely Sweet 16 run as a 15 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament immediately picked up his second technical foul and was ejected from the game.
Three ensuing free throws from graduate guard Tyler Thomas (13 points) gave Hofstra an 11-9 edge. A Thomas 3-pointer later capped eight straight Pride points which put Hofstra up, 16-9, before Princeton regained the lead, 22-16, with the next 13 points.
Thomas, who following the departure of Aaron Estrada (at two-time CAA Player of the Year) to Alabama, is expected take over as the top scoring threat for Hofstra this season after being the Pride’s second-leading scorer behind Estrada last year. He scored a team-high 11 points in the opening half, but he did so on only 3-of-10 shooting. His second half was worse as Thomas missed his first five shots of the frame before finally making his last one (for his only points of the second half) to draw Hofstra within 65-58 with 2:29 remaining.
Claxton viewed Thomas’ 4-for-16 night as an aberration of what he expects to come.
“Tyler struggled shooting the basketball tonight,” Claxton admitted. “That’s not a typical game for Tyler Thomas.” Claxton later credited Princeton for keeping Thomas in check. “They were just being physical with him,” he said. “They didn’t give him any open looks and they kind of crowded him.”
Junior point guard Jaquan Carlos (11 points and a game-best nine assists), similar to Thomas, had a far more productive first half (nine points on 4-for-8 shooting) than second half (only two points in 1-for-3 shooting).
Carlos added on Thomas, “Tyler struggled to shoot but we’re going to stick with him. He’s our guy. Whether or not he’s missing, we’re going to keep feeding him and keep rockin’ with him, and he’s going to get us through the season.”
Claxton noted of the Tigers’ defense, “They were getting a lot deflections. That’s what kind of bothered us the most, was playing against their length.”
While Thomas and Carlos were bottled up after intermission, the Pride was led in the second half by junior guard Darlinstone Dubar, who scored all of 18 of his team-high points in the second half on 6-of-9 shooting after taking just two shots in 19 first-half minutes.
“He is going to be a big piece of what we do here,” Claxton said of Dubar. “We’re going to need that from him on a nightly basis.”
As Thomas is being counted on to fill Estrada’s prior role at the team’s top scorer, Dubar is expected to take over Thomas’ old role, with the goal of moving from Hofstra’s third-leading scorer last year to becoming the Pride’s second-highest scorer this season.
What Dubar showed in the second half provided a promising glimpse of that, but Claxton said that between Thomas, Dubar, and Carlos, explicitly defining the top three scoring options isn’t a great concern as long as all three among that trio are playing well.
“That doesn’t really matter,” Claxton said. “It’s going to be different from game to game… if we have those three guys playing at a high level, we’re going to be fine.”
What could be another help during the season was shown in the second half by redshirt sophomore Griffin Barrouk (nine points), who helped the Pride stay relatively close by making three of four shots from behind the arc after Claxton inadvertently kept him out of the rotation in the opening half.
“Barrouk was solid all preseason,” Claxton said. “I probably should have got him in [during] the first half. It kind of just slipped my mind. I actually apologized to him at halftime and I got him in there [for] the second half. He’s going to have a big role here this season.”
What Dubar and Barrouk were able to provide helped Hofstra score nine more points in the second half than in the first half, but the Pride (which allowed 14 more points in the second half than in the first half) struggled to get stops and specifically couldn’t handle Pierce, who scored a consistent 13 points in each stanza.
“He drove the ball against our five,” Claxton said of Pierce. “That was the gameplan going into the game. We knew we had to live with something, so we wanted to make him beat us, and unfortunately, tonight he did. The kid had a great game — hats off to him.”
Claxton added, “Our weakside defense wasn’t great tonight. We relaxed a little bit off the ball too much. Especially not against this team — you relax for a split second, that’s when they run their secondary [and] third actions [or a] back cut, and that’s how they beat you.”
Carlos agreed, “Like Coach said, I think it was really our weakside awareness. I think that was really the problem and we had a little bit of trouble keeping them in front of us.”
After a four-point play (on a 3-pointer plus a free throw) from Lee put Princeton ahead for good, 34-31, less than two minutes into the second half, Piece scored five points before a Peters 3-pointer capped a 12-2 Tigers run that had the visitors up, 42-33.
Hofstra closed within 45-41 on a Carlos pull-up jumper, but consecutive points from Pierce (on a second-chance layup and a 3-pointer) finished a Princeton spurt of eight straight points to push Tigers’ lead back to a dozen with 11:46 left.
The Pride nearly sliced that deficit in half on a Barrouk trey and a two-handed dunk from Dubar off of a Thomas steal and a long outlet pass before Hofstra got as close as 65-60 on a pair of Dubar free throws with 1:47 to go, but a three-point play by Pierce, twenty seconds later, basically put the game out of reach, at 68-60.
A step-back jumper from Dubar momentarily kept Hofstra alive with 1:16 left before Princeton (which was coming off an impressive season-opening win at Rutgers, where the Pride coincidentally recorded the CAA’s first NIT win in 12 years last March), iced the game with six made free throws over the final 27 seconds.
Remaining positive as the Pride looks ahead to its first game of the season away from home (at George Washington on Tuesday night), Claxton said, “Even though we lost this game, I’m proud of my guys. They fought tonight. [Princeton’s] a really good team. They went to the Sweet 16 last year. They’re going to beat a lot of teams, just like they beat Rutgers the other night. We didn’t lose to any bums. We’ve just got to tighten up a couple things, which we will, but we’ll get better. We’ll bounce back from this and we’ll be fine.
“It’s going to take us a while to gel just like [with] last year’s team, it took us a while. We pretty much didn’t hit our stride until like, mid-January [last season]. I’m proud of the way we played tonight. We’re going to keep getting better as the season goes along.”