Northeastern men’s basketball team overcomes Charleston to advance to conference final

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.—For one year and five days, Northeastern point guard Vasa Pusica had been preparing for this.

His rivals from the College of Charleston had bodied him, double-teamed him, tried everything they could to make him miserable. He was ready for all of that late Monday night—and ready, too, for the belligerent noise that greeted him and his Huskies in the final minute of the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball semifinal.

In that final minute, Pusica lifted Northeastern to a 70-67 win over Charleston that leaves the Huskies (22-10) one win away from March Madness. With a victory here on Tuesday in the CAA final against top-seeded Hofstra (7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network), the Huskies can earn their second NCAA Tournament invitation in 28 years.

In this case, what they recovered from 370 days ago is every bit as important as what they may yet earn on Tuesday. For one year ago, in the North Charleston Coliseum, Northeastern had surrendered a 17-point second-half lead to Charleston while losing the CAA final in overtime. Pusica had taken that loss as hard as anyone. He had scored 30 points on 20 shots, including five scorching 3s down the stretch that had staved off the Cougars until the very end. But his two turnovers—one in the final minute of regulation, the other in the closing minute of overtime—had haunted him ever since.

Now, trailing the same opponent 65-64 in the same building, he and coach Bill Coen were unable to communicate as the final seconds ticked away Monday. It was too loud. It was as if the pressure that had been building for this last year were being voiced by their rival fans.

“I always defer to the point guard,” Coen said. “That’s the trust level I have in him.”

Pusica attacked a mismatch against big man Jarrell Brantley (who led Charleston with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists) for the go-ahead layup with 37 seconds remaining. Northeastern’s  6-foot-5-inch senior leader would be limited to 13 points (four of ten from the field) while playing all 40 minutes. Even so, Pusica made the biggest play of the game look like his easiest as he split the lane with little interference.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It was hard to hear, and we couldn’t get organized,” Coen said. “It was a scramble situation, and a big-time player stepped up and made a big-time play.”

While Pusica was waiting patiently for his opportunities, many teammates stepped forth to share in the responsibility. The most surprising of them was sixth man Shawn Occeus, who had missed 19 games this season with a pair of leg injuries. Playing Monday in only his second game back, he led Northeastern at both ends: with his signature defense as well as 17 team-high points on nine shots (including four of seven from the arc).

The Huskies outrebounded Charleston 35-24 overall and 12-2 on the offensive glass to make up for a relatively disappointing performance from the floor (45.5 percent overall). They also succeeded in holding Brantley’s co-star, guard Grant Riller, to 10 points on 13 shots.

The Cougars showed their hand from the start. They were pressing Pusica full court, forcing him to work nonstop whenever he had the ball, and when he tried to turn the corner, a big man was sprinting out to dissuade him. And so, the Huskies wisely played Pusica off the ball, which was not a new adaptation: During his seven-game absence this season, they had developed a variety of playmaking options.

When the passing and shooting of skilled big man Brantley tore open a 29-20 advantage for Charleston late in the first half, the Huskies responded with some of their most beautiful teamwork of the season. While Charleston’s defenders were distracted by Pusica, the ball was zipping around, and his teammates were cutting hard without it. The Cougars’ constant switching on the perimeter would leave room inside for timely baskets from Northeastern bigs Anthony Green (nine points on six shots) and Tomas Murphy (six points).

Northeastern had been preparing all season for a game like this. Whatever pressure Charleston was bringing down could not compare to what the Huskies had put themselves through since last March.

Since being blown out 72-49 at Syracuse on Dec. 4 in the midst of Pusica’s absence, the Huskies had gone 18-5, and each loss had come down to the final minute—which is to say that they’ve been competitive in every game for more than three months.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On this night, Pusica served as the eye of their hurricane. Instead of forcing his offense, he was feeding his teammates. He had five assists before he made his first field goal in transition 2:29 into the second half.

It was a tight, physical game, and the referees were letting both teams have it. This amounted to a big change: In Northeastern’s last two losses at Charleston dating back to last year’s conference final, the Huskies had been outscored at the free-throw line by a combined 41-13. The officials appeared to be in no mood to contribute to that disgraceful trend, and the Huskies were intent on being the aggressors. This time they outscored their hosts 12-7 from the foul line.

“They did a good job of letting us play the whole time,” Brantley said of the referees.

After Pusica’s go-ahead layup, a drive by Brantley was squelched by Northeastern’s swarming defense. Pusica made a couple of free throws to stretch the lead to three points with 17 seconds to go. Northeastern’s Donnell Gresham committed a non-shooting foul with five seconds left, but it was followed two seconds later by a crucial error: Marquise Pointer drew a foul from Tomas Murphy.

Pointer missed his second free throw, and with two seconds remaining, Gresham made both of his to clinch the win.

There were no smiles from Pusica as his teammates celebrated their redemption with him on the court. Later, he was asked if this win makes up for what happened last year.

“A little bit,” he said. “But the win tomorrow would definitely make it up.”

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