It's been a challenging time for Hofstra junior guard Nathaniel Lester, who began the season in the starting lineup but now is in a reserve role since freshman Chaz Williams became the starting point guard. Although Lester is the Pride's third-leading scorer with 8.4 points a game, he's been kind of interchangeable while riding the performance rollercoaster.
That's what made it so interesting to see how well Lester stepped up when Hofstra needed him down the stretch of its 92-89 overtime win against Rider (15-14) in an ESPN Bracketbuster game Saturday afternoon at the Mack Sports Complex. Lester provided 14 points and nine rebounds, made all eight attempts from the foul line and made some key defensive plays at critical times to help the Pride (16-13) pull out a tough win in a very entertaining game against a solid opponent from the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Lester hit a pair of foul shots for a 75-71 lead with 1:05 left in regulation. After Rider made it a two-point game, Lester's only fumble came in the final seconds of regulation when coach Tom Pecora called a play for him to drive the baseline. He got too far under the basket, ran into traffic and committed a turnover trying to make a pass. That led to the tying basket by Novar Gadson that sent the game to over time.
"I wanted him to get that ball to the rim when he drove the ball at the end of the game and tried to throw that pass," Pecora said. "If he gets it to the rim and we get an offensive rebound, it's game over in regulation.
"But Nat Lester made some big-time plays for us. He made a couple big jumpers, had a big block. So, I was proud of the way he played."
With the game tied at 79 in OT, Lester buried a jumper from the top of the key and then made two more foul shots that started an 8-2 surge by Hofstra for an 85-79 lead. It was 83-79 when Lester made the play that might have decided the game. Rider's Ryan Thompson, who had a monster game with 38 points on 11-of-23 shooting from the field and 14-of-16 accuracy at the line, drove the lane. Lester was planted before Thompson arrived, drawing a charge at the 1:50 mark. Hofstra went down and scored for a six-point lead instead of facing the pressure to make a basket in a two-point game.
Then, with Hofstra holding a 90-86 lead, Lester blocked a three-point attempt by Rider's Patrick Mansell with five seconds left, got the rebound, was fouled and made both. Game over. Never mind that he then fouled Thompson on a three-pointer with one second left. It didn't matter.
Lester battled through the adversity he's faced this season, and he remains an important part of the team who brings experience off the bench and the know-how to make big plays. "It's important," Pecora said. "He's been good off the bench a few other nights. He's fitting into that role of coming off the bench and doing certain things for us. He's very versatile. He's like a utility infielder on a baseball team. You can play him at two, three or four. You can have him guard a big guy like Thompson. You can post him up when teams play small if he's at guard. He's a very important part of what we do."
On this night, Lester was the difference-maker at the end.