The early signs were worrying, but the Huskies recovered from a rusty start to open the CAA Men’s Basketball Championship with a 63-47 quarterfinal win over William & Mary Sunday night in Harrisonburg, Va.
Northeastern was led by 19 points and 4 assists from sophomore point guard Tyson Walker. Chris Doherty, a 6-foot-7 inch sophomore transfer from Notre Dame who was elevated to the opening lineup after two starters were ruled out, provided a career-best 18 rebounds to go with 9 points.
“That’s what Chris does,” said Walker, who was the best player on the floor. “He’s a dog—he gets all his stuff on his own.”
The postgame celebration was twofold: Not only are the second-seeded Huskies (10-8 overall, 9-2 in conference play this season) two wins away from advancing to March Madness, but the victory moved Bill Coen (251-221) past Jim Calhoun to become the winningest coach in the 101-year history of men’s basketball at Northeastern. Calhoun, who led the Huskies to five NCAA Tournament appearances from 1972 to 1986, went on to coach the University of Connecticut to three NCAA titles and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Walker said that earning the record for their coach helped motivate the Huskies. But Coen was more interested in focusing on this difficult win and the opportunity it has created.
“It meant more to me that we were moving on and we’re still playing in the best month of the year if you’re a college basketball fan,” Coen said of his reaction to setting the Northeastern record. “It meant more to me that these guys were willing to play and show that type of heart and resiliency, given what we’ve been through. It’s nice to have a number, but I wouldn’t dare compare myself to Jim Calhoun.”
On Monday at 9:30 p.m., the Huskies will face No. 6 Drexel (10-7 overall, 5-5 in conference play), a surprise 80-75 quarterfinal winner over No. 3 Charleston. It will be the Huskies’ first meeting with Drexel this season.
A win in that semifinal, which will be televised nationally on CBS Sports Network, will advance the Huskies to the CAA championship game on Tuesday for a fourth straight year.
Coen has led Northeastern to four postseason appearances overall, including two NCAA Tournament bids in the past seven years.
“There really was a lot of uncertainty leading up to the tournament,” Coen said of the CAA. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group. We really didn’t get much practice time before we got down here, we had various guys getting out of quarantine at different times, but I’ve got to give our locker room credit. We’ve got some great leadership, and they had their mind made up that they wanted to play.”
The opening minutes Sunday were by no means promising, however. The young Huskies, who have no seniors, were playing their first game since a Feb. 17 loss at North Carolina—and doing so without mainstays Shaquille Walters (out for the tournament) and Jason Strong (who is listed as day-to-day). Northeastern was limited to eight players for the game.
The Huskies got off to a frigid start, committed 10 turnovers in the opening half and trailed by as many as 9 points—and yet by halftime they were down by only 28-25, as Walker had an increasing impact at both ends.
The Huskies had the CAA’s most efficient defense for the fourth straight regular season, and they tightened that defense in the early minutes of the second half to create scoring opportunities for an extended 18-2 run and a 47-32 advantage to effectively put the game out of reach.
“All year long what has kept us in games has been our defense, and that was consistent tonight,” Coen said. “That gave us a chance, and luckily we started to make some shots and move the ball a little better in the second half.”
Coen was hoping that their comeback against No. 7 William & Mary (7-10 overall, 4-7 in conference)—a team they hadn’t met during the regular season—would build the Huskies’ confidence. This was, after all, just their fourth game in 41 days.
A quarterfinal upset by Elon on Sunday knocked off No. 1 James Madison, the tournament host, leaving Northeastern as the top seed heading into the semifinal. But there are no favorites in this season of COVID-19 disruptions.