By Jake Sauberman, deputy sports editor
Northeastern University (NU) men’s basketball knew they had a tough week ahead of them entering the final two games on their three game homestand. Slated to play the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNCW) and the College of Charleston, the Huskies were about to find out if they could hang tough with the top two teams in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).
Against UNCW on Thursday, NU showed the resiliency and persistence necessary to compete with top teams. Early in the first half, the referee handed the ball to senior forward Alex Murphy for the inbound. UNCW continued their incessant full-court press like gnats attracted to light, making the simple act of crossing the half court line an energy-consuming affair.
Murphy looked for the open man, reading the press defense before dishing to senior guard T.J. Williams. He was immediately greeted by two UNCW defenders, arms fully outstretched. One of them, however, was Murphy’s defender. Trailing the play, Murphy saw that his man was busy with Williams and bolted ahead to the half-court line. Williams kicked it forward to his senior teammate, who now had an open lane to the rim with a UNCW guard blocking his way.
Known for his aggressive and relentless play style, Murphy’s eyes went wide as he rose up for the monster dunk just before the free throw line. A momentum-turning, highlight-reel dunk on his mind, he threw it down hard, slapping the rim on the way back to the floor.
He looked up to find the net untouched—the ball deflected off the rim. He threw hands up in exasperation as UNCW took it down for an easy transition layup.
The Huskies finished the first half down by 20: 39-19.
Now it was the beginning of the second half. Once again, Murphy inbounded the ball to Williams. Once again, UNCW tried the full-court press and attempted to trap Williams in the corner. Once again, Williams dished it back to Murphy. And once again, Murphy went up for the dunk.
But this time, no one was going to stop him. Center Devontae Cacok played the role of victim, as Murphy put him on a poster as he flew through the air for the and-one slam.
The Huskies outscored UNCW 46-27 in the second half, dropping the game by an excruciating one point margin, 66-65.
“This group always finds a way to keep digging, keep believing in each other,” head coach Bill Coen said after the game. “And nobody exemplified that more than T.J. Williams.”
Murphy got the second half momentum rolling, but Williams made sure it never left. En route to a career-high 33 points, the CAA’s leading scorer dropped 27 in the second half alone. He epitomized the Huskies’ comeback strategy: Play aggressive, get into the paint and don’t settle for jumpers.
“I knew going out into the second half that we were going to have to be more aggressive than we were the first half,” Williams said.
Normally a team that lives and dies by the three pointer, Northeastern had to readjust their gameplan as the shots weren’t falling. Just 2-11 from deep in the first half and 3-17 overall, the long ball proved futile.
“There are no open shots, pretty typically because of [UNCW’s] personnel,” Coen said, explaining his team’s change in play style. “They force you to play full-court basketball which gives you a lot of two-on-one [situations], which you want to take advantage of.”
Sophomore center Anthony Green had yet another quietly effective game for the Huskies, registering 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. He was a vital part of NU’s rim protection that held UNCW to just 20.6 percent shooting in the second half.
“I think Anthony [Green] has made tremendous strides throughout the year,” Coen said. “He gave us a really big presence in our zone, and a couple of blocks which helped us protect the rim.”
However, the stingy internal defense evaporated on Saturday as Northeastern hosted the College of Charleston. In the 85-71 loss, the Huskies allowed the opponent to shoot 62.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from behind the arc.
“I thought we just ran into a really hot and focused Charleston team,” Coen said. “You just got to tip your hat, they played a great game.”
Charleston featured a big three of Joe Chealey, Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley, who combined for 86 percent of their team’s total points on 74 percent shooting.
“They were very efficient scorers; they shot the ball well from the distance,” Coen said. “And once they made a few, it opened up the high post area for Brantley […] They have an inside-outside balance that’s tough to deal with, and they all played at a high level today.”
Coen was perhaps taking a lighter stance on his team due to the occasion. The Huskies celebrated Senior Day, an emotional time for seniors Williams, Murphy and forward Jimmy Marshall who laced up at Matthews Arena for their final time.
“It was very memorable,” Marshall said. “We’ve had so many great times here, me and T.J. [Williams] for four years. Having Alex [Murphy] this year has been even better, it’s like he’s been here for four or five years himself.”
Williams fought back emotion as he reflected on his career in the red and black uniform.
“It’s been great to be out there with a great group of guys, guys I can call my brothers,” Williams said. “Building those relationships is what it’s all about, because those relationships we’ll have for a lifetime. Just being able to say that we’ve played together, the history, the memories—they’ll last forever.”
Murphy, despite transferring to the Huskies this year from the University of Florida, expressed similar fondness for his time at Northeastern.
“My year here was awesome. [Matthews Arena] is just a great place to play, it’s just a cool atmosphere in there,” Murphy said. “But like [Williams] said, the most important thing is who we’re playing with and who we’re playing for. It’s been an amazing year, but it’s not over yet.”
Murphy’s words ring true: The Huskies will close out the regular season on the road, taking on Elon University on Thursday before heading to UNCW on Saturday. The CAA tournament awaits, and the Huskies will look to gain some momentum before their season is truly on the line.
Photo by Dylan Shen