HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — Following a rough 1-3 start within the Coastal Athletic Association, the Hofstra Pride knew something had to change to get its season back on track.
While some problems — like a prolonged shooting slump for team leading scorer, graduate guard Tyler Thomas — have persisted, swapping roles for junior guard German Plotnikov and graduate transfer guard Bryce Washington has thus far worked out very well.
Three starts for Plotnikov, three straight wins after the former reserve guard made all but one of his seven shots while leading Hofstra (11-9, 4-3 CAA) with a team-high 15 points to a defensive-minded 64-55 win over the William & Mary Tribe (7-13, 2-5 CAA) at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Thursday night.
The Pride needed every bit of its good scoring balance to hold off William & Mary down the stretch after a game-high 16-point lead with 12:45 left was whittled to nine less than three minutes later and reached single digits three more times while the Tribe still had time to come all the way back.
Hofstra’s defense and Plotnikov (the Pride’s only doubled-digit scorer in the second half, with 10 points after halftime) made sure that wouldn’t happen but the Belarusian junior college transfer also had some help from junior transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar (14 points), junior point guard Jaquan Carlos (eight points, nine rebounds, six assists), graduate transfer forward Jacco Fritz (seven points, 11 rebounds), and former starter Washington, who seven points off the bench.
Thomas contributed 13 points and six rebounds and reached a pair of scoring milestones during the game (surpassing both 2,000 career points and 1,000 points at Hofstra), but the transfer from Sacred Heart shot only 4-for-17 and missed all but one of a dozen 3-point attempts, extending an awful stretch in which Thomas has made just two of 25 3-point tries over his last three games and has shot just 18-for-78 (23.1 percent) from behind the arc over his past seven games after going 6-for-8 from 3-point range in a close loss to St. John’s on Dec. 30.
Previously unaware of Thomas’ bigger-picture achievements, head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton congratulated Thomas at the postgame press conference. Shaking Thomas’ hand and patting him on the back, Claxton told Thomas, “Oh, wow. Congrats, man. That’s big-time, man. I’m proud of you, kid,” before adding, “Tyler’s been a tremendous player for us in a year and a half. He’s a bucket getter. We’re happy to have him.”
While his coach didn’t know what Thomas was approaching beforehand, Thomas said, “I knew before the game. One of my teammates told me, probably ‘Stone.”
Forgetting his more recent struggles, Thomas said his work ethic has helped him over his career. “I don’t shoot any shot that I haven’t [shot] before a thousand times. I’m in the gym a lot, my preparation, my coach believes in me, my teammates believe in me, so I have the utmost confidence.”
Lately, however, the Pride has believed in Thomas a little too much as Hofstra has had to overcome his poor shooting throughout its win streak.
Claxton said, “It was a tough night for us shooting the basketball… so we had to kind of rely on the defensive end. That kind of just carried us to the win.”
The Pride’s defense certainly did key the victory, but contrary to Claxton’s general claim, Thomas’ teammates shot well, going a combined 20-for-39 overall and 7-for-15 from 3-point range, with no one beside Thomas taking more than four 3-point shots.
Junior transfer guard Gabe Dorsey (one of two Dorse brothers on William & Mary’s roster) lit Hofstra up for 26 points (including 17 in the first half) while making eight of 14 3-point attempts, but sophomore guard Trey Moss (10 points) was the only other player to score in double figures for the Tribe, which shot just 34.5 percent (20-for-58) overall while going only 2-for-18 from behind the arc aside from Dorsey.
“I think we rely on our defense, like Coach has always been telling us,” Thomas said. “We try to protect the paint, make guys shoot over us, and let our defense carry our offense some nights.”
Despite making six 3-pointers at the start (five from Dorsey), William & Mary (which missed its first seven 2-point shots) didn’t make a shot from inside arc until Dorsey hit a jumper 14:51 in, to keep the Tribe within 23-20. William & Mary finished the opening half with only one other made 2-pointer.
For the first in five games (since a five-point home win over Delaware in which Hofstra led by 12 at halftime), the Pride took a lead (28-22) into intermission thanks to a 21-9 opening run that Claxton hopes will be turning point from a spate of bad starts the Pride had suffered in recent games.
“I hope so,” Claxton said. “We know we can’t spot teams 15, 18 points… last game (a six-point win at Stony Brook on Monday night), we were only down five [at halftime]. This game, we were up [six] at halftime, so hopefully, that is behind us, and we just move forward.”
A 22-12 spurt over the first eight minutes of the second half pushed Hofstra’s lead to a commanding 50-34 before William & Mary scored the next seven points to get within nine.
With the margin still the same less than three minutes later, a pair of driving layups from Plotnikov pushed the Pride’s advantage to 57-44 with 5:53 remaining.
The Tribe twice got that deficit down to as little as eight, closing to within 59-51, with 2:52 to go, but William & Mary missed five of its last six shots and couldn’t get any closer than 62-55 in the final seconds.
Noting Washington’s valuable contributions in his new reserve role, Claxton also highlighted what Plotnikov has been able to provide for Hofstra as a starter.
“It’s helped,” Claxton said. “Both him and Bryce are defensive players. Right now, German is probably shooting the basketball a little bit better from the perimeter, but he’s a really good cutter and floor spacer. We just wanted to do something different. It’s no knock on Bryce, we just inserted German to the [starting] lineup just to change something up.”
Whatever is asked of him, Plotnikov has gone with the flow. “Nothing changes for me,” he said. “I’m just coming in ready to play whether I come in off the bench [or] whether I start, I’m coming in ready to play hard.”
Thanks to its current resurgence, the Pride is back in the mix for getting one of the top seeds in the CAA tournament as Hofstra soon approaches the midpoint of regular season conference play in a muddled and very competitive league. The Pride is one of four teams sitting just a game behind three others that are tied for second place.
But Claxton isn’t resting on Hofstra’s better position. “At this point, we want to take it game by game,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t look at the standings. Just, right now, this game is over, now we’re going to look forward and start studying Monmouth (which Hofstra play next, on Saturday), and just try to get that one.”
Along the same lines, Thomas added, “I think the team’s trending in the right direction, especially after a defensive win like this… but we’ve still got to take it game by game, practice by practice.”
Of course, the Pride ultimately won’t go far this season unless its leading scorer can likewise fix his shooting touch, paralleling the way Hofstra has corrected its earlier losing ways in league play.
However, Thomas was at a loss himself with trying to understand the cause of his own issues.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s why I’m going to shoot and see if I can find my rhythm back for the next game.”
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