HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — If the Delaware Blue Hens had missed two more free throws on Saturday, the final score would have been perfectly fitting. Then again, if Delaware had made a few more free throws, the Blue Hens might have won and the Hofstra Pride might have been facing some must-wins on its upcoming road trip.
As it turned out, 22 points (despite some inefficient shooting) from graduate transfer guard Tyler Thomas, 18 points, nine rebounds, and four steals from junior transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar, a pivotal 15 points (on perfect 6-for-6 shooting) and nine rebounds from graduate transfer forward Jacco Fritz, and 10 assists from junior point guard Jaquan Carlos were enough for Hofstra to hang on for a 76-71 Coastal Athletic Association win over Delaware (9-6, 1-1 CAA) in what could be the final league visit for the Pride’s biggest rival to the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex.
It was a victory that was aided by the Blue Hens’ shaky 8-for-14 free throw shooting (including 3-for-8 in the second half), compared to the Pride (8-7, 1-1 CAA) — which nearly blew a 16-point second half lead — going 9-for-11 at the foul line.
This triumph came 24 years and four days after the same building opened on Jan. 2, 2000. About two months after that date, current Pride head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton led Hofstra to an almost identical 76-69 America East Conference championship win over Delaware, the Pride’s most-played opponent, dating back to the 1953-54 season.
Hofstra’s latest win in the series was its 68th victory in 102 all-time meetings with the Blue Hens and its seventh straight over its arch-rival. Depending on next year’s schedule, it could be Delaware’s last conference visit to Hofstra once the Blue Hens move to the Sun Belt Conference in July, 2025. The teams could still meet in future years as non-conference opponents.
The Pride (then the Flying Dutchmen) hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1977, until Claxton guided Hofstra there in his senior season in 2000. With Claxton in the NBA as a first-round draft pick the following year, the Flying Dutchmen again beat the Blue Hens the following year for a second consecutive America East title and another NCAA tournament trip. While both conference title games were at Hofstra, the earlier rounds of the America East tournaments were held at Delaware’s current home arena, the Bob Carpenter Center.
“I’m sorry to see them go,” Claxton said. “That’s one of the trips that I looked forward to. I loved going to Delaware. I had my own battles against them for years when I was a player here, so I’m sorry to see them go, but I wish them well.”
Avoiding another in a string of bad recent starts was integral to Claxton moving to 5-0 against the Blue Hens as a head coach, as the Pride reeled off 10 straight points after allowing a 3-pointer on the game’s first possession.
“I’m proud of the way we started the game,” Claxton said. “The last couple games, we got off to poor starts, so we wanted that to be a point of emphasis coming into today.”
Delaware’s leading scorer this season, transfer senior forward Jyare Davis (who entered the game averaging 19.3 points per game), kept the Blue Hens within 20-16 with seven points while making three of his first four shots, but the Pride limited Davis to just four points on 1-for-8 shooting the rest of the way.
Mainly crediting Dubar for that, Claxton noted, “It started with ‘Stone. I think he did a tremendous job on Davis, who’s a very tough matchup, and he took it upon himself to shut him down… [Davis is] a load down there.”
Up 25-19, Hofstra got some separation at 39-25 with a 14-6 stretch highlighted by six points from Fritz. The Pride also began to get support from its bench, as Thomas passed out of a double team on the left blocks to reserve transfer junior guard German Plotnikov, who drained a left-wing 3-pointer toward the end of the same spurt.
Although that bucket provided Plotnikov’s only points of the game and while Plotnikov committed four fouls in only ten minutes, he was valuable for the Pride in other ways.
Claxton said of Plotnikov, “He’s interesting for us because we kind of move him around, from the 3, to the 4, to the 5, and to his credit, he knows exactly what to do at every position. He’s a valuable piece to the team and we’re happy to have him.”
After Plotnikov’s trey, reserve graduate guard Bryce Washington scored Hofstra’s next seven points, with two great finishes at the rim through traffic and a left corner 3-pointer (off of Carlos’ eighth assist) to help the Pride to a 44-32 halftime lead.
While Dubar and Carlos each played the full 40 minutes, Claxton said of his bench production, “We’re going to need that going forward. We’re going to need some good bench play, because I can’t play these starters for 40 minutes.”
Hofstra’s lead increased to as large as 59-43 after consecutive made jumpers from Thomas, but as Thomas struggled from the floor, so did the Pride’s ability to maintain a comfortable advantage.
Thomas entered the game as the CAA’s leading scorer, but has done so on almost an even mix of good shooting games and mostly poor volume shooting. He has shot 41 percent or worse in eight of the Pride’s 14 games this season while often relying too heavily on 3-point shots that have been missed too frequently, in too many games, as Thomas continues to adjust to his first year as Hofstra’s top scoring option.
Although Thomas started 4-for-6 (all from 3-point range), his shooting numbers ended nearly identical to his 9-for-26 night including a dismal 3-for-15 from 3-point range in the Pride’s conference-opening home loss to fellow defending CAA co-champion Charleston on Thursday night. This time, Thomas missed his last nine 3-point attempts and finished 8-for-26 overall and 4-for-15 from behind the arc.
Despite Thomas throwing up two airballs after having an earlier one against Charleston, and missing some contested shots — in some cases, over two defenders — against Delaware, Claxton insisted of Thomas, “He’s a really good shooter. He had great looks. I’ll take those looks any day [or] night from Tyler. I know more than likely, he’s going to make those shots, so I’m not worried about it at all.”
Following a seven-point, 1-for-3 first half, fifth-year guard Christian Ray (who led the Blue Hens with 20 points) scored 13-second half points on 6-of-7 shooting after intermission to keep Delaware in the game.
Ray scored seven points during a 16-4 Blue Hens surge that got Delaware to within 63-59 with 6:24 remaining.
After Fritz stopped that run with a three-point play on a second-chance layup and a free throw, the Blue Hens stayed with four points on four more occasions — the last on a Ray layup that made it 72-68 with 2:28 to go — before a 3-pointer from graduate guard Gerald Drumgoole Jr. (nine points) cut Hofstra’s lead to just 74-71 with 1:35 left.
On the next possession, Fritz showed that he could do more than just score and rebound to help the Pride win when he threw a perfect lob pass from the top of the 3-point line to Dubar (who reached 1,000 Hofstra points in the first half) for a dunk that closed the scoring with 1:13 remaining.
Recalling that play led to a lighthearted moment with much laughter when Claxton interjected during the postgame press conference.
Fritz said, “I’ve got to give credit to ‘Stone for that one because he’s been saying that to me, just, ‘Throw it up, throw it up,’ and today I was like, ‘Just throw it up there,’ and he dunked.”
Claxton interrupted, “I don’t get any credit for calling the play?”
Learning quickly from that, Dubar jumped in with a smile, “I’ve got to give credit to Coach Speedy and of course the passer. I wouldn’t have got the dunk without the pass.”
It was appropriate that Hofstra’s two best players in the game teamed up to just about finish off Delaware, which missed its last four shots over the final minute (including a trio of missed 3s in the last 23 seconds), but specifically, having Fritz play his best game in a Hofstra uniform since transferring from Canisius in the offseason was the biggest key in the Pride’s win.
“I think that’s a point where I need to go to consistently,” Fritz said. “The first couple games of the season, I didn’t really get there… and now I’ve just got to keep this up until the end of the season.”
Asked about his own contributions, Dubar added, “I’m very proud of myself but I’ve got to thank the coaches. They believe in me. They’ve told me to put the work in every day and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Looking more for Fritz and Dubar inside was a very helpful change in approach that Claxton claimed was the difference between winning and losing.
“We kind of adjusted the way we played in the post and to these kids’ credit, they picked it up right away, and that’s really what won us the game,” Claxton said.
Bending but not breaking with a big lead was also just as important.
“That was big,” Claxton said. “We had a big lead there and we let them back in the game, but to these kids’ credit, they didn’t hang their heads and they willed us to victory.”
After losing to Charleston, the win over the Blue Hens has the Pride in the same early position (with the same overall and conference records, and with a win over Delaware) this year as the same point last season before Hofstra went on to finish CAA play 16-2 and earned the 2023 conference tournament’s top seed.
The victory sets Hofstra up much better for its first CAA road trip of the season, with a nationally televised trip (on CBS Sports Network) to Northeastern on Thursday night before the Pride’s first-ever meeting with conference newcomer Campbell, which is playing its first season in the CAA.
“A great bounce-back win for us,” Claxton said. “After a tough loss, we definitely wanted to come in here today and get a win. It’s full steam ahead now. We’ve got to go into Northeastern and try to get on a streak here.”