NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.—The Northeastern Huskies are headed to the NCAA Tournament, and it is a trip two seasons in the making. The difficult losses of last year, the injuries that threatened to ruin this season before it started, the tightness in their stomachs over the past two combative games that reminded them of everything they never wanted to experience again—all of it has fired them onto the horizon of March Madness like an emotional cannon.
“When you’re growing up playing a little boys’ game, you’ve got a dream to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said after the second-seeded Huskies clinched their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2015 with an 82-74 win over top-seeded Hofstra Tuesday in the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball final. “You can’t do it alone. You need teammates, you need guys to support one another, who are willing to commit to a goal, willing to sacrifice. That’s what this group is about.”
As he listened to his coach, Vasa Pusica was nodding along.
On Sunday, Northeastern will learn of its seeding, bracket, and region in the 68-team field of college basketball’s ultimate single-elimination tournament. This will be the Huskies’ second March Madness appearance in five years, and even though they will arrive as underdogs, they won’t be happy just being there. They have come too far to accept losing.
The Huskies, outfitted in black with red trim, ran out to an 18-point lead overall and a 42-26 advantage at intermission while holding Hofstra’s star guard Justin Wright-Foreman, the NCAA’s No. 2 scorer this year, to eight points (3 of 12 from the field) in the first half. But he recovered to drive a comeback that evened the score at 54-54 with 9:13 remaining, leaving Northeastern in danger of going back in time.
Was history being renewed? Were the Huskies doomed to relive the nightmare of last year’s CAA final, when they surrendered a 17-point lead to the College of Charleston?
It turned out that last year’s discouraging loss made this triumph not just possible, but probable.
“Without that loss, maybe we wouldn’t be in this position right now,” said Pusica, the 6-foot-5-inch senior point guard who was voted Outstanding Player of the CAA Tournament.
Northeastern responded to the Hofstra comeback by embarking on an extended, resolute 14-6 run that covered the better part of five minutes.
At the heart of their triumphant stand was Pusica, who led Northeastern with 21 points exclusively from the 3-point line, where he was a career-best 7 of 12. Over the closing half-dozen minutes, he hit a trio of 3s, including a dagger with 1:43 remaining that assured Northeastern of retaining no less than a six-point cushion on its way home.
Four other Huskies scored in double figures, with swingman Bolden Brace generating a near triple-double of 10 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. Backup big man Tomas Murphy (11 points) contributed by exploiting the paint and baseline down the stretch. At the other end, the Huskies did enough to help Shawn Occeus (who was voted to the CAA All-Tournament Team while making his return from a leg injury) and Donnell Gresham in their defensive assignment against 6-foot-2-inch Wright-Foreman, who led Hofstra with 29 points (on 9 of 22 shooting). Hofstra’s star had scored 42 in an overtime semifinal win against Delaware.
The closeout game turned out to offer an entirely different challenge than the Huskies had faced one night earlier in the CAA semifinal. Whereas Charleston had aggressively challenged Pusica in hope of effectively taking him out of the game, Hofstra was falling back into its trademark matchup zone. For the first few minutes, the Huskies tried and failed to work the ball inside while exhausting the shot clock and incurring turnovers.
Coming out of the opening timeout, Pusica decided to take what the defense was giving him. He immediately drilled a couple of 3-pointers. Just like that, the Huskies were back to their normal selves, and steadily they pulled away.
When their big lead collapsed in the second half, they found themselves referring back to last year’s failure—but this time from a position of newfound strength.
“It motivated me to work harder over the summer,” Pusica said of the loss that had devastated him one year ago. “It gave us huge experience being in that  championship game. Today I think we had a little more cool in those moments, so we were able to go back to what we did in the first half and get the lead again.”
Northeastern’s toughness was further deepened by the rash of early-season injuries to Pusica, Occeus, and others that led to a disappointing 4-5 start for the preseason conference favorites. Instead of panicking, the Huskies drew together. Their 70-67 win over No. 3 Charleston in the semifinal here on Monday amounted to a statement of redemption as they played their toughest and, at times, most fluid basketball of the season.
“If you’re out there playing a game in 2019 and thinking about a game in 2018, you’re doing the wrong things,” Coen said with a big smile. “You have to do the job that’s right in front of you. Luckily, these guys allow you to coach them, because they want to win, and they’re good teammates.”
By beating back the ghosts that had haunted them for the past year, the Huskies have created hope for an extended NCAA Tournament run. This is only their second berth in 28 years, and as a lower seed they will be a long shot to win in the opening round. But this team has the blend of experience, shooting, and toughness that is found in March Madness Cinderellas.
Their previous appearance under Coen came in 2015, when as a 14th seed—led by senior forward Scott Eatherton—they suffered a heartbreaking 67-65 loss to No. 3 Notre Dame in Pittsburgh. The Huskies haven’t won a March Madness game since 1984, when star Reggie Lewis and coach Jim Calhoun drove them to a 90-87 win over Long Island in the preliminary “play-in” round. Overall, they’ve made eight NCAA appearances with just three opening-round wins.
For these Huskies, all of the history—the losses they’ve experienced and those long-ago NCAA teams that predate them—is a source of fuel and dreams that may yet come true. When the buzzer sounded Tuesday night, and they began celebrating on the court with their cheerleaders and the Northeastern band, it was as though everyone together was practicing for the Big Dance.
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