Defense-Fueled Run Propels Hofstra into Third Place

Matteo Bracco (gohofstra.com)

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — Although the Hofstra Pride can score, it knows it will ultimately only go so far as its defense will take it.

Discussing that as a primary focus of late, Hofstra backed that up talk once again, scoring 11 points off of five turnovers while scoring 16 straight points to key an important 69-57 win over its Coastal Athletic Association rivals, the Drexel Dragons, at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Thursday night.

Aside from that run, which turned a two-point, second-half deficit into a game-high, 14-point lead, the turnovers were even (8-8) and Hofstra (17-11, 10-5 CAA) had only three more points off turnovers (8-5) than Drexel (17-11, 10-5 CAA).

But throughout the game, and in that one decisive spurt in particular, the Pride continued its recent trends of holding opponents down, notching wins, and rising in the CAA standings as the league moves toward the end of the regular season and vies for CAA tournament positioning.

Winning for the sixth time in seven games, Hofstra pulled into a three-way tie with Drexel and Towson (which won at home as the Pride was paying the Dragons back for a two-point loss in Philadelphia exactly a week earlier). Based on head-to-head tiebreakers, Drexel fell from third-place to fifth-place as Hofstra moved from fourth-place to third-place, and Towson went from fifth-place to fourth-place. Only the top four teams will receive an automatic double bye to the CAA quarterfinals next month.

Hofstra has allowed a stingy 56.6 points per game, while allowing no more than 62 points in any game, over its last five wins in a sharp departure from the 79-77 defeat the Pride suffered at Drexel on Feb. 15.

Reflecting on that loss, head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton noted of the Dragons, “They made some tough shots in that second half down there in Philly, so we just wanted to come out and have high, active hands because we know they’ve got a load down low (in 6-foot-10, 265-pound senior forward Amari Williams)… and they’ve got shooters on the weak side. So, we wanted to have high hands and just discourage the pass, and try to get deflections and throw off their timing.

I’m extremely proud of the way we played on the defensive end… and that’s what won us the game. We wanted to have at least 25 deflections in this game and we ended up having 40.”

After a 9-for-16 turnaround to end to the first half, following a 2-for-13 start to the game, Drexel was held to just 7-for-22 shooting in the second half to finish the game a dismal 18-for-51 (35.3 percent), including 5-for-18 (27.8 percent) from 3-point range.

Although Hofstra was slightly worse from that distance (5-for-20), the Pride was a very efficient 22-for-36 (61.1percent) from inside the arc and was led by 28 points from graduate transfer guard Tyler Thomas, who entered the game leading the CAA in scoring with 22.1 points per game.

Transfer junior guard Darlinstone Dubar added 13 points (and seven rebounds), scoring nine (including the final seven) during the 16-0 stretch that turned a 43-41 Drexel lead with 10:47 left into a 57-43 Hofstra advantage 4:28 later. The Dragons got no closer than eight points on two different occasions thereafter.

Three other Pride players — junior point guard Jaquan Carlos (who also had a career-high-tying 10 rebounds and a game-best five assists), graduate transfer forward Jacco Fritz (three rebounds, one block in 25 minutes), and reserve sophomore transfer forward Silas Sunday (four rebounds, three blocks in 14 minutes) — chipped in eight points apiece.

Thomas’ first 12 points helped stake Hofstra to a 20-12 lead before Drexel scored the next 11 points, to lead by three. The Pride responded with a 9-2 run to go up four prior to settling for a 33-32 halftime edge.

Hofstra opened the second half on an 8-2 spurt, to go up 41-34, before the Dragons scored the next nine points to take their final lead of the game. But four of the Pride’s nine steals and a Drexel shot clock violation powered Hofstra’s game-turning run that put things out of reach for the Dragons.

While Drexel had good balance (with five different players scoring six points each) in the first half, the Dragons’ only real threats in the second half were from its two lone double-figure scorers, Williams (15 points in 26 minutes) and senior guard Yame Butler (14 points), with Williams scoring nine points and Butler eight after intermission.

Seemingly mismatched against Williams, Fritz and Sunday neutralized the CAA Preseason Player of the Year selection, outscoring him 16-15, outrebounding him 7-5, and blocking one more shot than Williams (4-3) in 38 collective minutes.

Claxton said, “When we get that kind of point production from our ‘5’ men, that’s crucial because we’re going to rely on our guards, but when we get that kind of point production from the bigs, it just helps. You know, 16 and seven from that position, it’s big for us.

Silas, he’s just getting better by each game. He came off the bench and gave us some really, really good minutes along with Jacco. Our ‘5’ men did a really good job on arguably the best big in the conference.”

Adding further on the 7-foot, 280-pound Sunday, Claxton said, “He’s a big boy so he takes up a lot of space, so when he’s rolling to the basket, you have to account for him, and when he comes into the game, we kind of do some different things on the defensive end because he’s a really good rim protector.”

What has clicked lately with Sunday, who was previously seldom-used during the season?

Claxton said, “I think it’s his overall confidence. I think the more he plays, the more confidence he gets in himself and he’s been vital for us these last couple games.”

Sunday added, “It’s just staying the course, just trying to get better every day and trying to improve every day. There’s always something to improve on.”

Meanwhile, Thomas has picked up his game significantly over Hofstra’s last eight contests after a mid-season slump that lasted for the better part of several games, a current stretch that Claxton believes should have Thomas firmly back in the lead for being considered as the league’s best player this season.

Tyler, he’s the Player of the Year in my mind,” Claxton said. “He’s been tremendous. [He] had a little hiccup but he got it back and he’s killin’ it.”

It hasn’t only been what he’s best known for — his scoring — which has others like his head coach taking notice. Thomas (who recorded a game-high five steals) has also become a team leader, both defensively and vocally.

Well, the vocal part took a bit of convincing for Claxton, who gave Thomas a quizzical look after he heard Thomas say, “I think I’ve been more vocal.”

Thinking about it for a moment, Claxton smiled and said, “Okay, I’ll give you that.”

Responding with his own smile, Thomas continued, “Thank you, thank you. See? I think on the defensive end, I’m trying my hardest on every play and now I think it’s carrying over to some wins, and we’re a much better defensive team when I guard the ball and be in my position.”

To that, Claxton smiled again and responded, “Yes, we are. I totally agree.”

Both Thomas and Claxton both of like mind that as in other wins during the Pride’s current hot month of February, it was Hofstra’s defense once again being the deciding factor.

We just played defense,” Thomas said, simply, before Claxton recollected a couple of late second-half stretches in which Hofstra missed six straight shots before making seven of eight, and then missing another five in a row.

Claxton said, “Yeah, it was on the defensive end because we kind of got in a run offensively and we missed a couple shots, and we relied heavily on our defense. It carried us and I think that’s what kind of put us over the hump.”

A relieved Claxton called the victory, “A monster win for us. It was a must-win game on our home court. We had to have it, and to these kids’ credit, they went out and they won it. They earned this one.

We wanted to come in and stand on business. We let one slip away against [Drexel] last [week] and we just wanted to come out here and play a full 40 minutes of Hofstra basketball.”

With the Pride having leads with seven minutes of fewer remaining in each of its five conference losses this season, and with four of those defeats coming by a total of only nine points, Claxton thinks his team is finally figuring out how to put teams away for good late in games.

It’s hard to win games but when you have one of the top teams in the league on your home court, you want to handle business, and I’m just proud of the way we did that tonight,” Claxton said.

Trying desperately to hold on to a top-four CAA tournament seed and to perhaps keep its current third seed or better, Hofstra will conclude its regular season with its home finale against 11th-place Elon on what is expected to be an emotional Senior Night on Saturday before facing arguably the toughest conclusion possible to end the regular season with a road trip to second-place North Carolina-Wilmington and first-place Charleston.

But don’t expect the Pride to take Elon for granted with the difficult pre-tournament tests to follow and so much still at stake.

Claxton said, “We kind of control or own destiny at this point, so we’re not overlooking anyone.”

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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