Occeus leads Huskies past Charleston to advance to CAA championship


File photo by Muhammad Elarbi

Senior guard Vasa Pusica brings the ball up the court in the Feb. 2 game against Hofstra.

Seamus McAvoy, news staff

It was a back-and-forth affair for Northeastern as they took on College of Charleston Tuesday in the CAA semifinals, but a dynamic performance off the bench from junior guard Shawn Occeus helped propel the Huskies to a 70-67 victory. The win came down to the final seconds and represented some payback for last year’s championship game, which NU lost to Charleston in overtime.

The Huskies will now face Hofstra at 7 p.m. Wednesday with the league title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.

Neither Northeastern (22-10, 14-4 CAA) nor Charleston (24-9, 12-6 CAA) managed more than one made basket in nearly the first four minutes of Tuesday’s game. Those scoring struggles would persist throughout a low-scoring half that saw the lead change 11 times, with NU’s standout senior guard Vasa Pusica not making a field goal in the entire period.

The lone bright spot for the Huskies offense early on was Occeus, who provided a spark off the bench for coach Coen’s squad. The reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year is still working his way back from an injury that kept him out from January until Monday’s quarterfinal win over UNCW, but Occeus racked up 11 first-half points on 4-5 shooting in just nine minutes of action.

Northeastern looked to be on the brink of letting the game get out of hand after Charleston produced a 7-0 run to give take its largest lead of the game at 29-20, but the Huskies responded with a 7-0 run of their own out of a timeout. A jumper from Occeus with 45 seconds remaining in the half gave Northeastern their first lead in over eight minutes, and the Huskies went into halftime leading 35-33.

The second half mirrored much of the back-and-forth action early on, with Charleston’s dynamic forward Jarrell Brantley getting things started with a layup that was immediately answered by a jumper from junior guard Bolden Brace. The Cougars retook the lead after a 3-pointer from guard Zep Jasper made it 45-44 with 13:02 remaining.

Northeastern struggled from behind the arc in the second period, typically a strength for the Huskies, and only managed to shoot 3-13 from deep. They later saw a six point lead erased as neither squad was able to separate, and Northeastern looked vulnerable once again as the momentum began to shift.

A free throw from senior center Anthony Green cut Charleston’s lead to 65-64 with 2:43 remaining, and that score remained until Pusica got a nifty layup to go with 37 seconds remaining. Pusica knocked down a pair of free throws on the following possession allowing Northeastern to take a 68-65 advantage with 17 seconds left.

The Huskies appeared to have secured the victory after knocking the ball loose from Charleston’s Marquise Pointer, but a questionable foul was called on Pointer’s 3-point attempt sending him to the line with a chance to tie the game with just three seconds left. After the game, CBS’ Jon Rothstein referred to the call as “the abomination of abominations.”

Pointer connected on the first but missed the second, and sunk his final attempt despite trying for the miss and rebound. Junior guard Donnell Gresham drained a pair of free throws after being intentionally fouled, and Northeastern escaped with a nail-biting 70-67 victory.

With the win, Northeastern advances to the conference championship game for the second year in a row to take on top-seeded Hofstra tomorrow night. NU hasn’t won the league (or appeared in the NCAA Tournament) since March 2015.