WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Huskies are one game away from a second straight trip to March Madness, but standing in their way is an opponent holding a year-long grudge. Hofstra, the preseason favorite and top seed of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, has been waiting 12 months for this rematch.
No. 6 Northeastern (17-15) will meet Hofstra (25-8) in the CAA Tournament final Tuesday at 7 p.m. EDT. The game will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.
The Huskies reached their third straight CAA championship game with a 68-60 semifinal win Monday over No. 7 Elon (13-21), which made an extended second-half comeback despite the fatigue of three elimination games in as many nights.
The Huskies never trailed, thanks to an ensemble performance by Jordan Roland (who led Northeastern with 21 points), Bolden Brace (16) and Tyson Walker (10). When the Huskies stalled offensively in the second half for the second straight night—enabling a large advantage to dwindle to 52-45 with 5:46 left—Roland, Brace, and Walker responded with big three-pointers to maintain control down the stretch.
Roland (3 of 6 in the second half) scored nine straight points for Northeastern in the final three minutes to put Elon away.
“The game was getting close and I wasn’t happy with how I was playing,” Roland said. “I wanted to do my part.”
The Phoenix were playing in the CAA semis for the first time, while the Huskies were making their sixth appearance in seven years. Northeastern exploited that experience gap to score the game’s first nine points. The advantage swelled to 26-10 as Elon committed nine turnovers while attempting only nine shots over the opening dozen minutes.
When a gorgeous overhand pass by Walters found Brace breaking away for a lay-in, to be followed by a smooth Roland three-pointer, the Huskies were up by 20 with more than a half still to play.
When it was over, the enervated Huskies barely celebrated—recognizing that their hardest work was still ahead.
“This tournament, coming into it, we lacked a little confidence in comparison to the previous couple of years,” said Brace, a senior who, like Roland, has scored more than 1,000 points for Northeastern. “But we’ve really stepped up, all the guys have locked in. I’ve finally realized that every game could be my last—and it’s made this tournament super awesome. I’m really having fun with it.”
Waiting for them in the final was Hofstra, a 75-61 winner over Delaware in the opening semifinal Monday.
Hofstra was the top seed last year when it lost a high-pitched 82-74 final to the Huskies.
“It means everything to us,” said Hofstra’s avuncular coach, Joe Mihalich, who—despite his team’s regular-season dominance of the past two seasons—was pointedly not supercilious as he recounted the difficulties that Northeastern had created for his program. He responded to questions about the upcoming final with a shrug, his arms akimbo, his grin self-deprecating.
The Pride had won a school-record 27 games when they were knocked off by Northeastern last year in the CAA Final in Charleston, banishing them to the NIT, where they were eliminated in the opening round. That loss to the Huskies has been a rallying cry all year, said Hofstra stars Eli Pemberton and Jalen Ray.
“I definitely think it’s an emotional edge,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said of Hofstra’s memories of one season ago. “I think I’ve seen that in Joe’s team this year. They’ve played with a chip. They’ve had great senior leadership.
“It’s going to be a difficult game. But that’s what you want as a competitor. It’s what this time is all about.”
While the Pride have been CAA favorites all season, the Huskies have taken a hard route to the final.
It was not until the end of the CAA season that they were assured of finishing ahead of Elon to earn a first-round tournament bye. A half-dozen of Northeastern’s CAA losses were by a combined 12 points. The Huskies were 1-6 in one-possession CAA games this season.
These agonizing results contributed to the identity of resilience that has defined these Huskies. In the absence of a vocal leader, they have learned the hard way to lean on each other. In spite of their mediocre record, the Huskies were the No. 2 team in the conference in terms of the NCAA’s statistical NET ranking—second only to Hofstra.
“If you learn from experiences, you can move forward,” Coen said. “We had a lot of frustrating losses—bad defense, poor free throw shooting, we didn’t make a shot. But day after day in practice, they didn’t hang their heads. They came in each day and they were searching for the answers.”
They are one game away from acing the test. But this final question, posed by Hofstra, will be the most difficult of the year for Northeastern.