by Jake Sauberman, deputy sports editor
Northeastern University (NU) men’s basketball just can’t catch a break. Or maybe they’ve suffered too many.
The injury bug is striking relentlessly, first taking out sophomore guard Donnell Gresham Jr. and sophomore forward Jeremy Miller early on. Lately, however, it has found new victims in freshman forward Max Boursiquot and star senior guard T.J. Williams, leaving the Huskies with a shorthanded and banged-up roster.
NU started its week against the College of William & Mary, who they previously beat by a 20 point margin on Dec. 31. However, Thursday’s game showed a reversal of fortunes, as the Tribe dominated with a 94-69 win over the Huskies.
It was a complete defensive breakdown on Northeastern’s part, as they allowed William & Mary to shoot 64.3 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from three. NU had no answer to the Tribe’s senior guard Daniel Dixon, who dropped 28 points in 29 minutes.
The Huskies put up a strong showing on the offensive end, but it could hardly keep pace with the constant stream of points that the opposition flowed through the hoop. At the very least, it was an uptick from the tough shooting nights that NU had recently endured on its homestand.
After countless shots clanged off the rim over the past week, it seemed as if the team placed a new emphasis on getting into the paint and scoring efficiently. Freshman guard Bolden Brace was the exception, putting up 20 points along with two blocks and a steal. He was six for eight from beyond the arc, representing two-thirds of the Huskies’ long-range shooting effort.
“We were encouraged by [Brace’s] contributions as of late,” head coach Bill Coen said of his guard’s play. “He’s finding his comfort zone on the court, he understands where his shots are going to come from.”
Williams and senior forward Alex Murphy also reached the double digits in scoring, with 18 and 13 points, respectively. But that dynamic duo would be broken up for the Huskies’ next game against James Madison University (JMU).
Williams, described as “nicked up” by Coen, rode the pine for the duration of NU’s 73-69 loss. Leaving an already-shallow team with fewer options off the bench, the Huskies were forced to play with just seven players. Coen, however, felt that the game was well within reach despite the inherent disadvantage.
“Not having T.J. [Williams] put everyone in unfamiliar roles,” Coen said. “We played extremely hard, but we had our chances to win.”
The Huskies fought back from a 12-point halftime deficit to take the lead with eight minutes remaining. That lead was short-lived, but NU kept it tied at 67 apiece going into the final two minutes of the game. Crunch time proved to be a test of fatigue, and there were simply too few bodies on the Northeastern bench to keep fresh.
In Williams’ absence, a trio of Huskies rose to make up for the missing production. Brace had another huge game, pouring in 21 points on 14 shots. His hot shooting and volume scoring over the week earned him the honor of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Rookie of the Week. Sophomore guard Devon Begley stepped up as the main ball handler for the Huskies, notching seven assists and four steals to go along with 13 points over 40 minutes.
The surprising standout of the game was senior forward Jimmy Marshall. Regulated to just a couple minutes every game, Marshall’s senior year hasn’t been as fruitful as that of Williams or Murphy. But the depleted Husky roster finally allowed Marshall to see quality court time, and the senior responded with 10 points on 4-5 shooting over 31 minutes.
Coen commended Marshall on his commitment to the success of the team; it’s not common for a senior to heartily accept a regulated role.
“He’s starting to get that senior urgency about him. He’s become more vocal in practice,” Coen said. “He’s a tremendous competitor—he wants to win in the worst way.”
Despite some positive developments from NU’s role players, the fact remains that the Huskies are coming off back-to-back losses with a battered team. With the looming CAA tournament fast approaching, the team will look to finally return to full strength. Coen takes a cautious approach to his team’s health, knowing that a nagging injury could bite at any moment.
“Everything is day-to-day,” Coen said. “Obviously things could pop up, but all we can do is prepare as best we can and take care of our bodies.”
Along with putting aside health questions, the Huskies have another unanswered question heading into the tournament: Can they hang with the top teams in the CAA in the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) and the College of Charleston?
“It’s going to be a difficult challenge for us, but I think our guys are going to embrace the challenge,” Coen said. “If we are going to be successful, we need to play team basketball to combat their strength and experience.”
Northeastern will get its first crack at the two contenders over the next week and will end up playing each team twice before the regular season closes. Charleston is up first on Feb. 16, with the UNCW bout scheduled for Feb. 23.
Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics