HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — Hofstra Pride head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton could just as easily have pointed to the Charleston Cougars’ 20-4 finish that turned a four-point deficit with less than 6½ minutes left into a 73-61 Charleston win at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Thursday night.
But Claxton instead chose to highlight the Cougars’ similar 16-4 start that continued a troubling recent trend of slow beginnings for Hofstra, which — in this year’s Coastal Athletic Association opener for both schools — was trying to make an early statement against the team it shared the Colonial Athletic Association regular season championship with last season.
“A tough night,” Claxton said. “I think we lost this game the first ten minutes. I was just telling the guys, ‘The last five games, we had slow starts and we basically spotted teams points and that’s hard to come back from. We’ve got to get off to better starts.”
The Pride (7-7, 0-1 CAA) actually started fairly well in two of its last five games and by the midpoint of the opening half, had already began to recover for several minutes against the Cougars (10-4, 1-0 CAA), but Claxton’s point was still poignant and the same one he made to his squad when he called his first timeout with Hofstra already down by a dozen points 4:03 into the contest.
Mainly because of another rough start, the Pride led for only 8:25 in a game in which Hofstra considerably outscored Charleston, 53-37, over a 29-plus minute stretch.
Using a 23-13 spurt, the Pride sliced its early deficit to just 29-27, and even after the Cougars’ usual second-leading scorer, Australian junior guard Reyne Smith, scored the next five points, Hofstra got those five points right back to stay within 34-32 by halftime.
Extending that run to an 18-5 surge with a 13-5 start to the second half, the Pride took its largest lead, 45-39, but Charleston answered with the next eight points — six from reserve graduate guard Bryce Butler — to go back in front, 47-45.
While Hofstra did a good job to contain Smith (10 points) and Cougars’ normal leading scorer, junior forward Ben Burnham (five points on 2-of-8 shooting), Butler (Charleston’s fifth-leading scorer this year) uncharacteristically led the Cougars with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting in 27 minutes off the bench.
“He came off the bench and had a really good game for them,” Claxton noted of Butler. “He played incredible.”
Butler was the only Cougar with double-digit shot attempts as four of his teammates each took between seven and nine shots, with Charleston spreading its offense around while shooting 45.8 percent (27-for-59), including 37.5 percent (12-for-32) from 3-point range.
Conversely, Hofstra went with a very different approach as its three normal leading scorers took all but six of the Pride’s 62 total shots and all but two of Hofstra’s 30 attempts from 3-point range despite that trio managing to only shoot a collective 37.5 percent from the floor.
Graduate transfer guard Tyler Thomas led the Pride with 21 points but shot just 9-for-26 while missing 12 of 15 treys. Junior transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar scored 20 points and had game-highs of 12 rebounds and four blocks but shot only 7-for-17 and 2-for-8 from behind the arc, while junior guard Jaquan Carlos (14 points) was only 5-for-13 from the field and missed four of his five 3-points attempts.
Overall, Hofstra made just six 3s (20 percent) and finished 5-for-24 from the floor after going 18-for-38 by the time the Pride took its biggest lead.
After a second-chance Thomas 3-pointer put Hofstra up, 57-53, with 7:13 left, Charleston took control with the next 14 points, to lead, 67-57, with 2:41 remaining.
The Cougars’ third-highest scorer this year, Croatian transfer junior forward Ante Brzovic (13 points) was expected to be a force for the Pride to have to handle, but he was largely held in check after scoring four points during Charleston’s game-starting run.
Hofstra could only do that for so long though, as Brzovic finally broke out with nine points over the final 4:45 to help lead the Cougars back.
A Brzovic dunk put Charleston ahead to stay, 58-57, and after a Butler 3-pointer, Brzovic stepped out to hit his own 3, before another trey by Smith. The Pride got within six on a Thomas driving layup, but Brzovic put the Cougars up 70-61 on another 3-pointer with 1:06 left and made it a 10-point game on a free throw in the final minute.
“He’s a good player,” Claxton said of Brzovic. “He’s a tough matchup. He can play inside or outside. We tried to play him one-on-one to start the game and we knew we couldn’t do that because he scored a little too easily, so we started to double him and that freed up their shooters.”
However, that wasn’t the only challenge Hofstra faced.
“Our transition defense,” Claxton admitted, was another issue. “We know that they push the ball on every make or miss and we were slow to get back and didn’t close out on some of their shooters.”
As the Pride rallied to take the lead in the second half, Claxton said, “We were guarding. We were guarding off the bounce, we were guarding in transition.”
But that didn’t last.
“Then we had a couple of communication breakdowns which led to some easy points for them,” Claxton said.
True to his “Speedy” moniker that he’s held since he starred as a Hofstra player more than two decades ago, Claxton normally makes it to the postgame conference room very quickly after home games, but not this time, not after letting a game get away that Hofstra desperately wanted to win against seemingly the current team to beat in the conference.
Instead, Claxton and his staff, immediately after the final buzzer, huddled together just outside the postgame room for approximately 15 minutes, trying to make sense of what they witnessed and to begin searching for answers for the long CAA road ahead before media members were granted access to the postgame room.
Once in that room, Claxton acknowledged that was not a fan of seeing last year’s fellow co-regular season champion and defending CAA tournament champion, and the preseason consensus pick to win this year’s CAA regular season title, at the very start of conference play.
Picked fourth in the CAA this year, Hofstra will have little time to prepare for its next game, against longtime rival Delaware (at home on Saturday afternoon), long before the Pride will get a chance to pay the Cougars back with a visit to Charleston to close its CAA regular season schedule on March 2.
“It was a tough opener for both teams,” Claxton said. “I don’t think we should have been playing each other [so soon in CAA play] but it is what it is, and we’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to try to go get Delaware on Saturday.”
Regarding the Pride’s latest poor start to a game, “It’s definitely a wakeup call but there’s no need to press the panic button,” Claxton said. “It’s one game. There are a lot of ballgames left and we’ll be fine.”