With '00 Class Looking On, Claxton, Hofstra Hope History Repeats Itself

Hofstra assistant coach Craig “Speedy” Claxton never has to look very far to be reminded of his own playing days at the school. His number 10 hangs in the rafters behind the benches at the David S. Mack Sports & Exhibition Complex, the arena where Claxton played his final home game on Mar. 11, 2000, when he scored 24 points as the then-Flying Dutchmen earned the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 23 years by beating Delaware for the America East title.

Reminders were particularly omnipresent Saturday afternoon, when Hofstra celebrated its first winter homecoming by honoring the 1999-2000 team and giving out white T-shirts with the school’s old logo (think a Visa card, except reading "HOFSTRA") and "CLAXTON 10" emblazoned across the back.

But with the Pride trailing Northeastern by 16 points before the second media timeout of the first half, Claxton didn’t have time to remember how he directed the Dutchmen to 11 comeback victories during his senior season.

Nor, as the Pride stormed back in the second half, was Claxton able to think of how the near-capacity crowd of 3,835 at the David S. Mack Sports & Exhibition Complex roared like it did 20 years ago this month, when it was formally known as Hofstra Arena and Claxton ensured it would forever and informally be dubbed “The House That Speedy Built” by single-handedly completing the comeback win over Maine that locked up the America East regular season crown for Hofstra.

And once the Pride finally climbed into first place in the CAA by closing out a 75-71 victory over Northeastern, Claxton could only arch his eyes, pucker his lips and offer an exaggerated exhale. It wasn’t time yet to ponder just how he’s the link between a storied Hofstra past and a present that offers the promise of one day soon being remembered in the same reverential tones as the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 squads, who made the school’s two most recent trips to the NCAA Tournament.

But half an hour or so later?

“It’s cool to connect both teams together,” said Claxton, who, aside from a goatee flecked with grey, looks exactly as he did during his playing days. “Kind of going through a similar course. Hopefully this team can cut the nets down like that team did.”

The reunion Saturday was like most high school and college reunions. Not everyone could make it. Assistant coaches Tom Pecora and Brett Gunning were serving in those roles with Quinnipiac and the Houston Rockets, respectively. Point guard Jason Hernandez, an assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets, and small forward Norman Richardson, an assistant coach with the G-League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants, each videotaped messages that were played during timeouts.

So, too, did the guy who surely would have been voted most likely to succeed had such a ballot been conducted in the spring of 2000 — head coach Jay Wright, now Hall of Fame-bound as the two-time national championship-winning coach at Villanova, which fell to Seton Hall shortly before Hofstra tipped off Saturday.

But the 1999-2000 team members who did gather — including Claxton, forward Mike Feeley and center Greg Springfield, the latter of whom still holds a share of the school record for blocks in a game (10) — found the time and the years melting away and their connection stronger than ever 

“It’s amazing, man, no one can ever take that away from us,” Claxton said. “That banner will be there. And it’s pretty neat to come back, and whenever we do get together — I mean, we did something that not too many teams could do at this level, and we’ll forever have that bond.”

And like any good homecoming, this one included a win that harkened back to the good ol’ days. The 2019-20 Pride are less like the 1999-2000 Dutchmen and a lot more like the 2000-01 team, which lost Claxton but retained an upperclassman-dominated core that went 26-5, won the America East again and nearly beat UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Justin Wright-Foreman, who scored 2,327 points and won a pair of CAA Player of the Year awards before being selected by the Utah Jazz in the second round of last June’s draft, was also in attendance Saturday and watched a quartet of experienced former teammates — fifth-year senior Desure Buie, senior Eli Pemberton, redshirt junior Stafford Trueheart and true junior Jalen Ray — power the Pride’s comeback.

Pemberton scored all 12 of his points to help start the comeback in the first half. Buie and Ray combined to score 36 of their 44 points in the second half while Trueheart, pressed into duty at center due to Isaac Kante’s foul trouble, recorded seven rebounds and delivered a pair of thunderous rally-starting dunks among his seven points.

The Pride punctuated the win over a marathon final 31 seconds in which Buie and Ray combined to hit their last seven free throws and Hofstra held Northeastern scoreless from the field except for a miracle, left-handed desperation 3-point heave by the CAA’s leading scorer, Jordan Roland.

The championship-caliber toughness on both sides of the court was reminiscent of the traits displayed in a similarly raucous Hofstra Arena on Feb. 20, 2000, when a near-sellout crowd of 4,729 saw Claxton score five points in a game-ending 9-0 run that lifted the Dutchmen to a 67-64 win over Maine that clinched the top seed in the conference tournament.

That Hofstra team allowed the fewest points in the America East. This one has the best KenPom.com defensive efficiency rating of any CAA squad.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Claxton said. “Great team effort, great comeback, and we won it with our defense again.”

The presence Saturday of some 1999-2000 Flying Dutchmen served as a reminder of how infrequently the storybook ending gets penned, especially at the mid-major level. Hofstra has lost the CAA title game three times — including last year, when the Pride led the league from wire-to-wire before absorbing the second championship game loss in Claxton’s seven seasons on the coaching staff. School legends such as Wright-Foreman, Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio, Charles Jenkins and Juan’ya Green never got to cap their careers with a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

And if the Pride falls short in the conference tournament next month, most of what happened Saturday will be rendered a footnote. It’s not necessarily fair, but to paraphrase head coach Joe Mihalich, it’s what everyone associated with a mid-major signed up for.

Twenty years after his own storybook ending, nobody understands the equation and expectations, or better understands the permanent place in history the Pride is chasing, than Claxton.

“Being here now, and going through this whole process again, I don’t take it for granted,” Claxton said. “I know how hard it is to win a championship at this level. And hopefully, this group can do that this year.”

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