Men’s basketball seeks redemption in Charleston

Donnell Gresham Jr. and Northeastern are seeking a CAA championship in North Charleston this week. (Image Credit: GoNU)
Donnell Gresham Jr. and Northeastern are seeking a CAA championship in North Charleston this week. (Image Credit: GoNU)

Northeastern begins CAA Tournament play on Sunday at 6 PM ET against UNCW. Matt MacCormack, Justin Littman and Michael Petillo will have the call, with pregame coverage beginning at 5:30 PM ET. To listen, click here.

by Matthew MacCormack

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — If you’ve followed the Northeastern men’s basketball team over the past twelve months, you know the story of that gut-wrenching night in the North Charleston Coliseum last March.

It was March 6, the night of Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) championship game. An automatic bid to the NCAA tournament hung in the balance.

The Huskies – a plucky, punchy group – had exceeded a projected sixth-place finish in the preseason media poll to tie for a regular season conference title. They led top-seeded College of Charleston by 17 points early in the second half.

Then it all fell apart.

Northeastern lost, 83-76 in overtime, despite holding a five-point lead with 40 seconds to go in regulation. NBA-bound Charleston guard Joe Chealey scored 23 of his 32 points in the second half and overtime, and a home-court-like atmosphere for the local Cougars turned the tide.

“I can’t think of a tougher [loss],” said NU head coach Bill Coen after the game.

“Just lost our composure a little bit in a couple of key moments, had some inopportune turnovers and missed free throws that kept the door open just long enough for Charleston to make a run.”

Redemption looms for this year’s Huskies (20-10, 14-4 CAA). There’s no underdog storyline here; with 93% of last season’s scoring returning, two-seeded NU enters the tournament as the preseason favorite. Despite injuries to some key contributors, the Huskies have won nine of their last 10 games. Erasing the memory of last year’s heartbreak is as “simple” as winning three more.

Northeastern’s quest begins on Sunday evening at 6 p.m, in a quarterfinal matchup with 10-seed UNCW, whom the Huskies beat twice this year.

The CAA Tournament bracket, updated after Saturday's opening round games. (Image Credit: CAA.com)
The CAA Tournament bracket, updated after Saturday’s opening round games. (Image Credit: CAA.com)

Inexperience can’t be an excuse this season. Redshirt senior and First Team All-CAA point guard Vasa Pusica leads a deep, unselfish, defensive-minded group. Coen, in his 13th season, has to be eager to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2015.

Fans and writers love storylines, and the redemption narrative fits the 2018-19 Huskies. But don’t expect the coaches or players to expand on topics of revenge or restoration.

“Every team is motivated just going down there,” Coen said in Tuesday’s CAA Teleconference.

“But I do think [our] experience helps.”

On the court, Pusica (17.9 ppg, 4.1 apg, 3.8 rpg) is the unquestioned metronome of the team. A transfer from University of San Diego, the 6-foot-5, Serbian-born Pusica is a go-to scorer who sets up his teammates with ease. His control of Coen’s motion offense – where the open man is the best man – is evident.

Flanking Pusica is another transfer guard, the slick-shooting Jordan Roland. The redshirt junior began his career at George Washington, but scored 14.8 points on 41% shooting from three and 90% from the line in his first year for the Huskies, earning All-CAA Third Team honors.

Part of Roland’s emergence came from the Huskies’ injury troubles. Starting forward Max Boursiquot missed the entire season with a hip injury. Junior guard Shawn Occeus, last season’s CAA Defensive Player of the Year, has played just 11 games all season, held out for the last nine with an ankle injury. Pusica missed seven games with a wrist injury and illness. An injured foot held reserve sophomore forward Tomas Murphy (8.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg) out of the last two games.

“It’s been the story of our season,” Coen said of the injuries.

“We had a ton of adversity and different days, different guys have stepped up and filled the void.”

Occeus and Murphy are expected back for Sunday’s game.

“We’re trying to work them back in at practice and see what they can give us throughout the tournament,” Coen said.

But this is a deep team. Roland’s topped 20 points in nine games, and came off the bench for 10 games. Senior center Anthony Green – all 6-foot-10, 250 pounds of him – has chipped in nine points and five boards per game, all while protecting the rim and making consistent game-changing blocks and two-handed slams.

And how could you forget the defense?

Northeastern had the best scoring defense (69.3 ppg) in the CAA during conference play. Opponents shot a league-worst 31.4% from three against the Huskies in the conference slate.

Yet, somehow, not a single Northeastern player made the All-CAA defensive team. Redshirt junior guard Donnell Gresham and junior forward Bo Brace were robbed.

Gresham (10.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.2 apg) locked up potent perimeter players in Occeus’ stead. In addition to contributing double figures on 15 occasions, Gresham helped hold All-Conference guards like Hofstra’s Justin-Wright Foreman, Charleston’s Grant Riller and Towson’s Brian Fobbs below their season averages in games at Matthews Arena.

Brace is the glue that keeps the Husky defense together. At 6’6, he defends guards and forwards alike. Signature performances against All-Conference forwards like Charleston’s Jarrell Brantley (13 pts, 6 TOs on Jan. 17) and Elon’s Tyler Seibring (3 pts, 1-17 FGs on Feb. 9) show off his defensive prowess. He’s also the Huskies’ leading rebounder with 5.8 per game, and shot 41% from three.

Winning it all won’t be easy. Regular season champ Hofstra (25-6, 15-3 CAA) boasts the two-time reigning CAA Player of the Year in Wright-Foreman, and a midseason 16-game winning streak. Three-seed Charleston (23-8, 12-6 CAA) looms, with a near home court advantage and an All-Conference duo in Riller and Brantley.

Northeastern is balanced, motivated and unselfish. But for Coen, that alone doesn’t ensure the Huskies’ CAA success.

For the skipper, a championship team needs something more.

“You gotta have some fun,” Coen said.

“The teams that can manage that balance – where you’re three parts business and one part just enjoyment and playing for the fun of the game – [those] are the teams that can come out on top.”

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