By Matthew MacCormack, news staff
A win in the first game of the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament was too good to be true.
The Northeastern men’s basketball team fell to the University of Notre Dame 69-65 on Thursday, March 19 in the NCAA Tournament. The loss marks the end of a historic season in which the Huskies captured their first-ever Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) tournament title and broke a 24-year NCAA Tournament drought.
No. 14 seeded NU (23-12) battled hard in its first tournament appearance since 1991, but in the end was ousted by the No. 3 seed Fighting Irish. Redshirt senior forward Scott Eatherton tallied 18 points and eight rebounds in his final game for NU, despite playing just 24 minutes due to foul trouble.
Notre Dame was led by a heroic performance from junior forward Zach Auguste, who posted 25 points on 10 of 14 shooting to go along with five rebounds. The Irish forced 17 points off 16 Husky turnovers, as NU’s sloppiness ultimately decided the game. The Huskies had the ball in the game’s closing seconds, trailing 67-65, but Auguste helped force a crucial turnover to seal the victory for Notre Dame.
NU Head Coach Bill Coen was impressed with his team’s effort.
“We had an opportunity to tie the game up or grab a lead in the last possession. I think, in the NCAA tournament, that’s about all you can ask for,” Coen said at a post-game press conference. “I think what ultimately did us in was we just had way too many turnovers to beat a quality team like Notre Dame.”
The Huskies fought from the opening tip Thursday, despite the fact that Notre Dame was the overwhelming favorite. Junior guard David Walker (15 points, seven assists) gave NU a 3-0 lead just over 30 seconds in.
“They were excited to play,” Coen said. “I didn’t think there was any fear factor going into the game.”
Notre Dame led for most of the first 20 minutes, but NU never trailed by more than five points. The Huskies contained Irish senior guard Jerian Grant early on and the All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection didn’t score in the game’s first 11 minutes.
NU took a 24-22 lead with 3:54 to play in the half after back-to-back layups from junior forward Zach Stahl (eight points, five rebounds, three assists). It was the Huskies’ final lead of the afternoon.
Notre Dame mounted a 9-3 run, punctuated by a layup from Auguste with 11 seconds to play. At the half, NU trailed 31-27.
The Irish momentum spilled over into the second half and Notre Dame scored the first six points to push the lead to 10.
NU refused to let up, however, and mounted a 9-0 run to cut the margin to 43-41 with 14 minutes left. Redshirt junior forward Quincy Ford (nine points, five rebounds, four assists) contributed two layups in the stretch and Walker netted a crucial free throw.
Notre Dame built a game-high 12-point lead over the next seven minutes, with the help of senior guards Grant (17 points, five assists) and Demetrius Jackson (nine points, eight assists, four rebounds). Jackson nailed a triple to give Notre Dame a 63-51 advantage with six minutes remaining.
On the brink of elimination, NU turned to redshirt senior Eatherton.
“We’ve dealt with that kind of stuff before. We’ve gotten down and had to fight our way back,” Eatherton said in the press conference. “A key was staying together and supporting each other and staying confident.”
Eatherton scored eight of the Huskies’ final 14 points and alone outscored the Irish in the game’s final six minutes. Even though Eatherton had four fouls with 11 minutes to play, Coen kept him in the game.
Eatherton used a layup to cut the lead to four with two minutes left. On the next NU possession, Grant stole the ball and went coast-to-coast for a layup. Up 67-61 with 1:24 to play, Notre Dame was in control.
The Huskies got the ball back and sophomore guard T.J. Williams (seven points, five rebounds) hit a contested layup in the lane to cut the lead to four. Thirty seconds later, Eatherton tipped in a missed 3-pointer from Walker, making the score 67-65 with 33 seconds to play.
Off the inbound, Stahl intercepted an errant pass from Notre Dame senior forward Pat Connaughton, giving NU possession with 26 seconds in regulation.
Ford got the ball but Grant and Auguste trapped him, and Auguste ended up with a steal. NU fouled Auguste, who hit two free throws to seal the 69-65 final score.
Despite the chaotic final moments, Eatherton said he is proud of the way the team played.
“I’m not really sure what happened at the very end, but I think we gave a great effort and I don’t think that that last play is what lost us the game,” he said.
When asked about playing his final game at NU, Eatherton added, “I don’t think it’s really set in yet… It’s been a great career.”
Coen said he was impressed with the grit his team displayed in the loss.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of this group of young men,” Coen said. “They pushed each other. They held each other accountable all year long, and they never, never gave in.”
After a historic season, Coen said he looks forward to the team’s future. The Huskies will lose their leading scorer and rebounder in Eatherton to graduation, as well as senior forward Reggie Spencer. Walker, Ford, Williams and Stahl were four of the team’s top five scorers this season, and will all return next year.
“Today, this is about this group and what they’ve accomplished over the course of this season and their careers,” Coen said. “I’m certain that the group coming back will look to build on that and continue the proud tradition that is Northeastern basketball.”
Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics