Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
This season, there has been plenty going on the New York metropolitan area. As always, the attention in the area by the media is mostly focused on one team: the St. John’s Red Storm of the Big East Conference, as they are considered New York’s Team.
However, there are two programs that have captivated the attention of both New York City and Long Island. They’ve gotten the attention of the entire Metro area. Neither program made the NCAA Tournament, but that’s alright, because they both had winning records in their conferences, and their coaches definitely did a great job at their respective schools.
The schools in question are none other than Fordham and Hofstra. Both schools won more than 20 games and both made it deep into their respective conferences (A-10 and CAA). But to understand more about both schools, you have to hear their respective stories.
This season, the Rams began their first season under head coach, Keith Urgo, after the departure of their previous head coach, Kyle Neptune, who went on to be the head coach at Villanova after one season. But having been the associate head coach on last year’s staff, he was very familiar with the players he was inheriting.
On this squad, he had graduate student and guard Darius Quisenberry, a 6-foot-1 guard who was the leading scorer at 16.9 points per game and recently finished his collegiate career with more than 2,000 career points. Then, you have another graduate student in 6-foot-7 forward Khalid Moore, a Queens native who transferred in from Georgia Tech, who averaged 15.7 points per game for the Rams this season.
Other players that were significant contributors were 6-foot-3 junior guard Kyle Rose, 6-foot-5 guard Antrell Charlton, 6-foot-10 senior forward Rostyslav Novitskkyi, 6-foot-3 freshman guard Will Richardson and 6-foot-8 junior forward Abdou Tsimbila.
In the beginning of the season, the Rams went 12-1 throughout the non-conference portion. But then the Atlantic 10 schedule popped up and the question was: How would the Rams fare during this part of the season? This was an honest question, as Rams had long been suffering for years, as they hadn’t been in a postseason tournament since 2016, in which they played Boston University in the College Insider.com Postseason Tournament. Also, since 1992, they had not made the NCAA Tournament.
Well, the Rams’ first true test was at home against Dayton on Jan. 10th in front of a sold-out gym. Despite their best efforts, they would lose 85-52, and would render them 1-3 in A-10 play at that point in time. However, there’s more to the story than that. That game would be a learning lesson for Fordham, as they would continue to go on a tear through the rest of the season, going 11-3 the rest of the way.
As the games went on, the team began to get better and better, and the crowds continued to fill up more and more to the point that there were several sell-outs in Rose Hill Gymnasium, which normally seats up to 3,200 spectators, but had one side of the bleachers converted into a food court, due to current construction taking place.
After every win, Urgo and the Rams were gracious enough to celebrate with the fans, who came out in droves, as they had something to be proud of. On March 4th, as they dominated in their final regular-season game against Duquesne, they would finish with a record of 24-7, their best record in 31 years. Because of that, Urgo would go on to win A-10 Coach of the Year honors.
Because of their torrid play, they would go on to finish tied for second place with Dayton and Saint Louis, with identical records of 12-6. And also, they would earn a bye into the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals, where they would play La Salle, whom they would knock off, 69-61, to set up the semifinal matchup against Dayton, whom they would play for the second time this season.
In this rematch, it would be closer than the last time, as both teams matched shot for shot and did everything they were supposed to do. It was win or go home, survival of the fittest. And just like at Rose Hill Gym, the Fordham student and fan sections were out in full force, as mostly three-fourths of the 10,156 spectators in attendance that day were present for the Rams. It was a New York City crowd, through and through.
However, it was not to be for Fordham, as the Flyers pulled away in the second half, and kept Quisenberry, the Rams’ leading scorer in check throughout the game. Dayton would go on to win, 78-68. It was a tough loss for Fordham after a tremendous season. It is also a travesty that they did not get invited to the NIT, but this is the start of something special, as the Rams will return Richardson, Tsimbila, Charlton and Rose, and will introduce two freshmen in guards Angel Montas and Noah Best, both of whom redshirted this season, and will bring in Jahmere Tripp, a forward out of Brooklyn that plays at Our Saviour Lutheran High School, a powerhouse based in the Morris Park section of The Bronx.
It’s safe to say, good times are happening on Fordham Road.
In these last few seasons, the Hofstra Pride have been a success story on Long Island. Back in 2020, under then-head coach, Joe Mihalich, they would win the CAA championship, and looked to be headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000. However, a force named COVID-19 killed all those plans, as there would be no March Madness, due to a disease that would plague the entire world.
Fast-forward three seasons later, to the present-day. Hofstra is still going strong, and it is thanks to the tutelage of their current head coach, Craig “Speedy” Claxton, a name that the university and its fanbase is familiar with. A native of Hempstead, Long Island, Claxton is a 2000 graduate of the school and was a great player for the program then known as the Flying Dutchmen that left with a great resume: two-time America East Player of the Year, a total of 2,015 career points, the 2000 Haggerty Award and an America East Conference championship and an appearance in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. After college, he would go on to play in the NBA for 10 seasons and was a part of the 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs team that won the NBA championship.
In just two seasons as head coach, he has had some solid teams. Last year’s team went finished 21-11 and went all the way to the CAA Tournament quarterfinals. This season, they were on a tear once again, going 25-10, and winning the CAA regular-season championship.
They had a great solid group of players putting in work on the court, such as their leading scorer in 6-foot-3 graduate student and guard Aaron Estrada, their leading scorer at 20.3 points per game. Also in the starting lineup was 6-foot-3 senior guard Tyler Thomas (16.5 points per game), 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Darlinstone Dubar (10.3 points per game), 6-foot-8 graduate student & forward Nelson Boachie-Yiadom (3.5 points per game) and 6-foot sophomore guard Jaquan Carlos (6.7 points per game), who was the assists leader this season with 168.
Other contributors for the Pride were 6-foot-9 graduate student and forward Warren Williams (8 points per game), 6-foot-6 sophomore guard German Plotnikov (5.1 points per game), 6-foot-4 freshman guard Amar’e Marshall (5 points per game) and 6-foot-4 graduate student & guard Bryce Washington (3.4 points per game).
In the non-conference portion of the season, they had a tough-record of 7-6, but in the first two games of the season, they beat Princeton and Iona, two teams that would go on to play in the NCAA Tournament. And then through CAA play, they made plenty of noise, going 16-2, only losing to North Carolina A&T and Towson. Because of their torrid play, they earned themselves a double bye in the CAA Tournament, where they would beat William & Mary in the quarterfinals, 94-46, and in the semifinals, went toe-to-toe with UNC-Wilmington, only to lose in overtime, 79-73.
Losing like this so early was a crushing blow to the Pride, as they were destined to play in the NCAA Tournament. But because of their record, they were able to do the next best thing and play in the NIT. And in the first round of the NIT, they would play a big-time foe from across the Hudson River in Rutgers, which plays in the Big Ten.
In that pivotal game, whatever Rutgers put up, Hofstra matched it. For a period of 45 minutes (regulation and overtime), it was a a game in which both teams were battling it out. Even with Estrada fouling out, the Pride still stayed resilient on the floor. Thomas made some crucial shots, including one in the waning seconds of the second half to send it to overtime. In the extra period, it was more of the same, as a clutch shot was made in the waning seconds, but this time, Rutgers could not capitalize, as a shot was missed by Caleb McConnell and there was a chance at a rebound, but it was taken and then time ran out. Hofstra knocked off Rutgers, a high-major opponent, 88-86.
It was a big-time victory for the Pride, as they missed out on March Madness, but got a good taste of what a huge postseason win supposed to be with this one. But just like that, it was on to the next one, as a few days later, they would meet up against a major foe in the University of Cincinnati.
Early on in the game, it was a close game, with the Bearcats leading by just a few points through the first half and part of the second half, with the Pride giving them all they could handle. But then against the Bearcats’ huge frontline, Hofstra just could not stop the opposition and also missed crucial shots. Needless to say, the Pride’s run came to an end with a 79-65 victory.
Despite the loss, it doesn’t take away from the special season they had. Just like Fordham, they may not have made the NCAA Tournament. But unlike Fordham, they got the chance to show what they could do in two postseason games. With some great talent coming in next season, there’s no reason why the Pride shouldn’t be very exciting in season 3 of the Speedy Claxton era. Maybe this time, it will result in an NCAA Tournament. But for now, we must revel in what was still a really good season.