By Michael Samaha, columnist
For the first time since 1991, the Northeastern University Huskies are going to the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies punched their ticket to the Big Dance last weekend by winning their first ever Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) tournament title. The No. 14-seeded Huskies will face No. 3 Notre Dame on Thursday in Pittsburgh.
NU finished the season with a 23-11 record (15-6 CAA) and won a share of the regular season championship along with the College of William & Mary, University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) and James Madison University. Due to tiebreakers, NU earned the No. 3 seed in the tournament, giving them a bye to the quarterfinal and one of the tougher paths to the championship.
In their opening game in Baltimore, the location of the CAA tournament, the Huskies took on the sixth-seeded University of Delaware Blue Hens, the reigning CAA champions and the school that knocked off the Huskies in last season’s conference tournament. This turned out to be the closest and most nerve-wracking game of the team’s tournament run. NU held eight-point leads twice in the second half, but with 30 seconds left in the game, the Huskies only led by one. NU eventually won 67-64 by shooting nearly 55 percent from the floor and connected on seven of 13 3-point attempts (three apiece from junior guard David Walker and redshirt junior forward Quincy Ford and one by redshirt junior guard Caleb Donnelly).
In the semifinals the next day, NU played the second-seeded UNCW Seahawks. The Seahawks swept the regular season series against the Huskies, but there was no way they were going to go 0-3 against the team this time. UNCW was the conference’s best defensive team all season, but after some early problems against the press, the Huskies figured out the defense, leading to 45 second-half points and 78 points in the game. The team shot well from the 3-point range for the second game in a row, hitting seven of 14 (Donnelly and freshman guard Devon Begley had two each and Walker hit three). After going back and forth for a majority of the game, NU took a 48-47 lead with 11:40 left in the game on senior forward Reggie Spencer’s free throw and never looked back. The Huskies went on to win comfortably, 78-71.
The championship game on March 9 was the true test. NU and William & Mary were the preseason picks to be at the top of the conference, and then played in the CAA championship game with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. NU had a 24-year NCAA drought, but William & Mary is one of five schools to have never made the NCAA tournament. The top-seeded Tribe was led by the conference’s Player of the Year and the program’s top career scorer senior Marcus Thornton. NU was also up against an arena about 80 percent filled with William & Mary fans and a student section almost 10 times the size of NU’s. The best way to combat that kind of crowd is getting off to a hot start, and that’s what the Huskies did.
NU started the game on a 10-0 run, eight of which came from Ford. The Tribe fought back and tied the game at 15, but the Huskies never trailed. Northeastern quickly regained the lead on a Begley 3-pointer and took a 10-point lead into halftime, 36-26. Fans could feel the nervousness from the huge William & Mary crowd as the Tribe was held to 26 first-half points, something it wasn’t used to seeing from its super-efficient offense. Ford opened the second half with another three.
The Husky lead grew to 13, but a 6-0 run got the Tribe crowd back in the game at 42-35, even leading to an “I believe that we will win” chant from the William & Mary student section. That chant fueled the Huskies, who proceeded to go on a 25-10 run of their own, resulting in a 22-point lead with 3:27 left in the game and a confident NU crowd that could already feel the win coming. But we knew the game couldn’t be that easy. Turnovers and missed free throws helped William & Mary go on a 16-0 run in three minutes. With 36 seconds left and a Tribe timeout, its student section proceeded with the “I believe” chant once again. The Huskies hit five free throws down the stretch and the Tribe didn’t score again, leading to a 72-61 NU victory and an “I believe” chant from the Husky students just before fans stormed the court and mobbed the players.
Redshirt senior forward Scott Eatherton, junior guard David Walker and Ford were each named to the All-Tournament Team, with Ford winning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award. The next game for the Huskies is Thursday against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies can get really hot from the perimeter (12 of 20 in the championship game and shooting 55 percent from 3-points during the conference tournament), and sometimes that’s all it takes to orchestrate a huge tournament upset.
-Michael Samaha can be reached at Sports@HuntNewsNU.com.