NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.—Northeastern opened the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament with a no-nonsense 80-59 quarterfinal win over North Carolina-Wilmington on Sunday night.
The No. 2 seeded Huskies (21-10) never trailed. They led the 10th-seeded Seahawks (10-23) by as many as 13 in the first half and by 27 in the second, which enabled coach Bill Coen to rest his starters for the final minutes in anticipation of a semifinal rematch with Charleston. One year ago, with their fans filling the North Charleston Coliseum, the hometown Cougars recovered from a 17-point deficit and beat Northeastern 83-76 in overtime.
That loss has driven and bonded the Huskies ever since. On Monday night, they will return to the scene of that devastating loss in hope of making it right—on their way, they hope, to the NCAA Tournament invitation that will go to the winner of the conference tournament.
Many Huskies contributed to this worry-free night. Guard Jordan Roland was the top scorer, with 21 points on 13 shots (including 5 of 10 from the 3-point line), though his leadership defensively may have been even more important. Swingman Bolden Brace added 17 efficient points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists, and senior point guard Vasa Pusica had his typical all-around stat line of 16 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds.
The Huskies were hitting 3-pointers early and often (46.2 percent overall), which lifted their confidence and enabled them to focus on the game plan of nullifying UNCW freshman point guard Kai Toews. He ranked second in the NCAA with 7.8 assists per game. But the defensive efforts of Roland and Shawn Occeus (returning from a leg injury) limited Toews to 2 assists (with 3 turnovers) in the first 30 minutes, by which time Northeastern had ended all discussion with a 60-37 lead.
UNCW shot 40 percent overall and was held to a single 3-pointer in 7 attempts.
“We shared the ball at a high rate, got high-quality shots coming out of the gate,” Coen said. “If you want to win the CAA, you’re going to have to defend the 3, and you’re going to have to make 3s. Tonight we did both.”
The Seahawks had one comeback in them, and it was launched near the end of the first half by senior 6-7 forward Devontae Cacok (21 points, 13 rebounds), who finished his college career by generating his NCAA-leading 23rd double-double. He put a bit of fear into the Huskies by slashing their lead to 29-23 with a variety of midrange jumpers and burly finishes around the basket.
Roland, who sat out last season after transferring from George Washington University, replied with 8 of Northeastern’s final 10 points to restore the advantage to 39-28 at the intermission. The other basket was provided by Brace on a lunging yet feathery finish in transition that he had triggered at the other end by forcing UNCW’s Jeantal Cylla into a hopelessly difficult turnaround jumper.
And so, with little further ado, onto the semifinal the Huskies went.
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