HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — If there was one thing the Hofstra Pride’s last two games proved, it’s that how teams finish is what counts.
One game after being ahead by as many as 13 points, leading for 31:27, and trailing for 7:09 in a late loss at Monmouth, the Hofstra Pride trailed the Stony Brook Seawolves at home by as many as 13, led for 5:16, and trailed for 33:16 in a thrilling 72-71 comeback win that was punctuated a 17-foot, fadeaway, left baseline jumper from graduate guard Tyler Thomas with 0.4 seconds left at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on Thursday night.
Coupled with Hofstra rallying from a nine-point, first half deficit in an 80-74 win at Stony Brook on Jan. 22, Thomas’ shot gave the Pride a regular season sweep and bragging rights over its fellow Long Islanders from one county to the east, while beating the Seawolves for the fourth straight time and for the ninth time in the last 10 meetings between the programs, while Hofstra improved to 28-6 all-time against Stony Brook.
More importantly, the Pride finished the first half of its conference schedule by keeping up with four other Coastal Athletic Association teams who also won on Thursday night to move into a five-way tie with those schools, behind four other teams at the top of the CAA standings. Without Thomas finishing off the rally, Stony Brook (11-11, 4-5 CAA) would have instead been in that position and Hofstra (12-10, 5-4 CAA) would have tumbled into sole possession of 10th-place, which is where the Seawolves now find themselves in a mostly muddled and competitive league.
Having lost three prior CAA games by a total of seven points last month, the Pride was happy to start February by finally winning a close one.
Sitting between Thomas and junior guard German Plotnikov, a junior college transfer who efficiently complemented Thomas with a career-best 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting (while making all five of his second-half shots to match Thomas’ 14 points after halftime), head coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton let out a laugh of relief that was shared by Thomas and Plotnikov after saying, “That’s a big-time win, not just because it was [a local rival like] Stony Brook, but we haven’t been playing our best basketball. We lost a couple of tough games [in the first half of] conference play, so to get this one, and to finally have the ball go in our favor, it feels good.”
Plotnikov later said, “The first half, I passed on a couple of shots, but Speedy kept telling me to shoot the ball. It shows how much he believed in me.”
Claxton added of Plotnikov, “Once he plays within himself and shoots when he’s wide open, he’s a really good player for us on both ends of the floor.”
Meanwhile, after taking 15 3-pointers and going only 13-for-45 (28.9 percent) from behind the arc in Hofstra’s first three conference games of the season — and more recently going just 2-for-25 over another three-game stretch — Thomas used better shot selection to score a game-high 26 points on 10-for-21 shooting, including 3-for-8 from 3-point range.
Thomas said, “It was more that they were really forcing me to drive it tonight and getting me off the 3-point line, so I just took what the defense gave me and I’m always confident I can get all the way to the rim to draw a foul or get the mid-range [game] going.”
Setting Thomas and others up was junior point guard Jaquan Carlos (11 points, team-high nine rebounds, game-high 10 assists, no turnovers) who just barely missed his first career triple-double.
However, long before Thomas, Plotnikov, and Carlos made their impact felt, Stony Brook controlled the game in the first half from 3-point range.
Following five early points from Thomas, a Plotnikov 3-pointer gave the Pride a 10-6 lead before the Seawolves went on a 24-9 spurt to go up, 30-19, after seven earlier lead changes.
Graduate guards Aaron Clarke (team-high 18 points), Tyler Stephenson-Moore (17 points), and Dean Noll (14 points) made a combined seven first-half 3-pointers to get Stony Brook off to an 8-for-11 start from behind the arc, but the Seawolves went just 4-for-16 from that distance thereafter.
Hofstra stayed within 41-31 by intermission, and after Stony Brook started the second half scoring with three free throws, a Thomas 3-pointer capped a 17-8 run that brought the Pride to within 52-48 with 13:06 remaining.
After missing nine straight shots spanning both halves, Hofstra then made its next nine shots before missing its ensuing six. The Pride made eight of its final 14 shots after that. The Seawolves went in the other direction, finishing just 8-for-30 after starting the game 15-for-24 overall.
Led by 13 points from graduate transfer center Keenan Fitzmorris, Stony Brook dominated Hofstra, 20-0, off the bench, an advantage that was almost completely neutralized by the Pride’s 20-6 scoring edge (including 12-0 in the second half) in the paint.
“I’m proud of my guys,” Claxton said. “A big win. They’re down 10 going into halftime and we could have easily quit. The shots weren’t falling, they (the Seawolves) were killing it from 3-point land, but this team didn’t quit… they battled and fought that whole second half. We never hung our heads, not for one second, and I’m proud of the way my team performed tonight.”
Although 3-pointers from Clarke and Noll about four minutes apart maintained a seven-point Stony Brook lead with 8:40 left, neither team led by more than one possession over the final 5:49.
Plotnikov scored six straight points to put Hofstra up, 59-58 (with 5:24 remaining), giving the Pride its first lead since 14-13, before Stephenson-Moore then answered with consecutive jumpers.
Thomas tied the game twice on his own jumpers and made a pair of free throws to regain the lead for Hofstra, at 66-64, with two minutes left, but Noll drained a left-corner 3-pointer to move the Seawolves back in front by a point only 15 seconds later.
A Clarke right-wing jumper made it 69-66 with 30.4 seconds to go before graduate transfer forward Jacco Fritz (four points) got an and-1 out of a timeout with 16.8 seconds to play. Fritz missed the succeeding free throw to keep it a one-point Stony Brook lead.
Fitzmorris was fouled and made two free throws with 15.2 seconds left before the Pride closed with the game’s final four points.
Fritz cleaned up a driving missed layup by Carlos with a putback layup to cut the Seawolves’ lead to 71-70 with 7.9 seconds left.
Clarke had a chance to extend that margin with exactly seven seconds to go, but missed the front end of a one-and-one, setting the stage for Thomas to provide Hofstra’s first last-second win since the Pride won on an Eli Pemberton layup with 0.5 seconds left at Northeastern on Jan. 9, 2020.
Thomas, at Claxton’s behest, positioned himself close enough to take the pass after Clarke’s miss was rebounded by junior transfer guard Darlinstone Dubar (10 points, seven rebounds).
“Coach actually said, ‘Go on the free throw line,’ so I can get the ball, so it was more him telling me to go get the ball,” Thomas explained.
“Smart coach,” Claxton retorted with a wry smile.
Dribbling up the left sideline, Thomas drove along the left wing, approaching the baseline, and pulling up between Clarke and Noll, shot over Noll off of his right leg, knocking down the jumper to send The Mack into a frenzy.
“I saw space on the baseline and I just had to get the shot up,” Thomas recalled. ”It’s a good feeling, especially because we won. We got the nasty taste out of our mouths from [the game at] Monmouth and we needed this one bad.”
Claxton added, while pointing to Thomas, “If anyone deserved that shot to go in, it’s this kid. The work that he puts in on a daily basis, he deserves to make that shot. I’m extremely proud of him and happy for him.”
Stony Brook had one last slim chance after Thomas’ teammates — those already on the court and others from the bench — mobbed him as the officials checked to see if a time adjustment was needed, but 0.4 was accurate. Out of a timeout, Stephenson-Moore launched a desperation heave from the back court that glanced harmlessly off the glass at the final buzzer.
Reaching the midpoint of conference play with a winning league record instead of a losing one is something that encouraged Claxton, particularly since Hofstra was possibly only a few plays from perhaps being 8-1 and in first place in the league if not for suffering three very close losses in CAA play.
“If we just play the right way, play under control, and value the basketball, we can beat any team in this league on any given night,” Claxton boasted.
The Pride will get its chance to test itself against second-place Towson as the Tigers bring a five-game winning streak to The Mack for Hofstra’s winter homecoming before a national television audience on Saturday night.
Claxton knows that challenge won’t be easy. “We know it’s going to be a very physical game,” he said. “Towson is always one of the more physical teams in the league. So, we’ve got to rest up… and get ready for a battle.”
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