SALT LAKE CITY—Defenders fighting over screens to prevent him from shooting. Big men switching onto him. Extra men arriving to cut off his dribble.
After two years as Northeastern’s star point guard, Vasa Pusica had grown used to all of these tactics. But he had never seen them executed with such breathtaking force as on Thursday.
“The athleticism is a big difference when you play teams like this,” Pusica said in the quiet of the locker room after his 13th-seeded Huskies had been beaten 87-53 by No. 4 University of Kansas in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament. “I felt like we were never getting easy looks all game long. Even when we made some, they were tough shots.”
The Jayhawks knew they had to neutralize Pusica, the 6-foot-5-inch senior point guard who had led Northeastern (23-11) with 17.8 points this season while making half of his shots overall, including 40 percent from the 3-point line. On Thursday, Kansas held Northeastern’s senior leader to seven points and 11 errant shots on 13 attempts, including four of six misses from the arc.
“I think everybody almost wanted it too badly to happen, and sometimes when you try too hard, or you push too much, or you put too much expectation on yourself, you cannot perform at a high level,” said Northeastern coach Bill Coen. “But we would not be playing today—we’d all be home home, glued to our TVs watching—if not for Vasa.”
Many prognosticators had picked the Huskies, in the belief that their experience and 3-point shooting would outweigh the explosive advantages of a young Kansas roster rich with high-flying McDonald’s All-Americans. But youth, speed, and length won out. The perimeter-based Huskies, who had ranked 16th in the NCAA in 3-point shooting this season, made just 21.4 percent of their 3s and 28.1 percent of their shots overall. Instead of making their typically high rate of catch-and-shoot jumpers, they found themselves missing shots off the dribble.
“They took us out of our identity,” Coen said. “Typically we’re a team that moves and shares the ball and gets quality looks … Their defensive scheme turned our team, which has typically an elite teamwork philosophy, into a one-on-one game.”
The Huskies were led by junior guard Jordan Roland, who scored 12 points on 13 shots while hitting an early pair from the arc to establish a Northeastern record of 99 3-pointers this season.
While Northeastern’s best player, Pusica, was being overwhelmed by a multitude of defenders, Kansas 6-foot-9-inch star Dedric Lawson was creating mismatches to carry his team from the start. Lawson’s game-highs of 25 points (9 of 16, including 3 of 5 3-pointers) and 11 rebounds provided Kansas with a foundation from which to build.
Northeastern missed nine of its last 10 shots in the first half as Kansas began to pull away. The Jayhawks were attacking early in their offense for the easy points that weren’t coming from the 3-point line, where they went 2 of 12 in the half. Their trend of penetrating to the basket continued throughout the final 20 minutes.
Coming out of the half trailing 37-25, the Huskies briefly cut their deficit to seven points around some inspired paint play at both ends by senior center Anthony Green. Then Kansas coach Bill Self called timeout to order his team to stop “jacking around,” and that was that. They outscored Northeastern 50-23 over the final 17 minutes. Even their weakness of 3-point shooting turned into a strength, as the Jayhawks made 6 of 10 in the second half. They shot 70 percent in the second half (19 of 27) to set a college record at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“They were on a run, and it felt like we had no chance of coming back,” Pusica said.
“Our guys were as locked in as they have been in a long time,” said Self, who is 38-14 in the NCAA Tournament with the Jayhawks. Kansas will be facing No. 5 Auburn in the second round on Saturday.
Guard Devon Dotson, one of four freshmen in the Jayhawks’ starting lineup, added 18 points. Dedric and K.J. Lawson, the brothers who transferred from the University of Memphis two years ago, combined for 38 points on 26 shots.
Trailing 53-32 with 12:26 to go, Coen briefly tried to change the dynamic by surrounding Pusica and Green with senior forward Jeremy Miller, sophomore guard Myles Franklin, and freshman forward Jason Strong—none of whom had been expected to play.
But there were no moves he could make to overcome an opponent that had been ranked No. 1 in the country as recently as December. But the Jayhawks suffered personnel losses that ended their championship streak in the Big 12 conference at 14 years. On Thursday, they were able to regain some of their old institutional confidence at Northeastern’s expense.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this group,” Coen said. “It doesn’t take away what they accomplished this year.”
The senior class of Pusica, Green, and Miller had led Northeastern to 23 wins each of the last two seasons, and its second NCAA Tournament appearance in 28 years. Much as the Huskies were able to grow from the misery of their loss in the 2018 Colonial Athletic Association tournament, so, too, was Pusica hoping that future teams look back on this painful experience as a launching point.
“Obviously we didn’t want to finish this way,” Pusica said. “But it’s basketball, it’s life, and you learn from it. Hopefully this team can learn learn the lesson and get better.”