Those moments when you’re riding high, when you feel invincible, when you feel like you have all the momentum and confidence . . . those are the moments you’re most likely to be smashed over the head with a hefty sledgehammer.
Such was the story of the Northeastern Huskies on Thursday night. They entered Bob Carpenter Center for a showdown with the Delaware Blue Hens, the best CAA team in non-conference plat, winners of seven of their last eight.
But Northeastern had every reason to feel good about their chances. After several weeks of failed crunch-time execution leading to blown second-half leads and close losses, the Huskies won both of last week’s games. Their win against Charleston was particularly encouraging, as the Huskies held the Cougars’ excellent offense scoreless for 10 straight minutes. Grant Riller, the conference’s best pure scorer, eked out nine points in the first half and didn’t score at all in the second. The Huskies ran away with the game.
But Thursday night’s game would not build on that success. Instead it would revive last month’s demons, as Nate Darling and the Blue Hens hit the Huskies hard and quickly en route to a 70–48 win. It was the Huskies’ largest loss since their 34-point NCAA Tournament defeat against Kansas last March, and their worst loss in conference play in nearly three years.
When the Huskies and Blue Hens met at Matthews Arena four weeks ago, Nate Darling’s unconscious second-half shooting (28 points on 11 attempts) keyed a steady comeback, and the Blue Hens overcome a 16-point deficit to win by two. Darling, who averaged more points in his last six games than any player in the nation, went right back to torching the Huskies.
He began with a catch-and-shoot three from the corner on the first possession of the game. A stepback long two, another catch-and-shoot three, three free throws, and a semi-transition pull-up three later, the teams headed into the first media timeout. With less than five minutes in the books, Delaware had opened up a 16–4 lead, one that they would never relinquish. Fourteen of those points were Darling’s, and he had yet to miss. It was the second straight game in which Darling scored a dozen or more points before the first timeout.
Darling would hit another three after the break, then miss his next five shots to end the game with a surprisingly modest, yet still game-high 17 points. Though Northeastern contained him for the rest of the game, the wounds he inflicted could not be stitched up.
It didn’t help that Northeastern’s offense wasn’t clicking. A few wide-open misses notwithstanding, the Huskies had a tough time generating quality looks. The Blue Hens pressured ballhandlers, kept them out of the paint, and made routine passes difficult. The Huskies, normally one of the best in the conference at protecting the ball, spent the first chunk of the game discombobulated. Tyson Walker threw away a couple of passes, allowing Delaware to get out in transition and build their momentum.
By contrast, the Huskies saw a set, staunch defense every time down the floor. The long-armed Kevin Anderson was particularly effective in denying clean looks to Jordan Roland, who registered a decent overall game but never reached the flamethrower status Husky fans have become familiar with.
By the time eight minutes had been played, Darling’s scoring had been supplemented by a Justyn Mutts tip-in, two free throws from Anderson, and a pair of inside buckets from Colin Goss. Delaware led 24–4.
In a play that encapsulated the Huskies’ struggles, Greg Eboigbodin leaped, snatched a rebound, and went right up for a putback bucket. But the momentum from his jump carried him underneath the hoop, and his shot was blocked by the underside of the backboard.
Not that the backboard was the only one blocking Husky shots. Dylan Painter, the 6’10” transfer from Villanova, made his presence felt on the inside, blocking three shots in the first half. Northeastern guards who were already having a tough time driving into the paint were further dissuaded by Painter’s paint patrol.
The Huskies finally got something going around the middle of the first half, with Roland keying an 8–0 run. But the lead never dipped lower than 15 points, and Ryan Allen’s brilliant and-one dissolved any lingering Husky momentum.
Delaware led 43–21 at the half. Northeastern’s total was their lowest in any half this season, a product of an offense unable to generate clean looks consistently. Bolden Brace remained aggressive but made just one of his eight shots. Shaq Walters notched two buckets but often stagnated the offense by catching the ball, taking a couple of meandering dribbles in the midrange, then dishing the ball to a teammate. Neither Guilien Smith nor Jason Strong, both efficient shooters who played meaningful minutes off the bench, tried a shot all night. By contrast, all but one of the Blue Hens who saw first-half action had logged a bucket.
The second half changed absolutely nothing, as both teams scored 27 points. Darling and Roland, two of the CAA’s minutes leaders, played less than their averages once the score was a foregone conclusion. Vito Cubrilo, who had played just 16 minutes all season for the Huskies before Thursday, entered the game with almost 17 minutes remaining. His only shot attempt was a doomed drive against Goss, who pounded Cubrilo’s layup toward the floor. Cubrilo is the only Husky this season who has seen the court but not scored.
This is not to say that the second half lacked interesting moments. Delaware energized their home crowd with a few dunks from Allen and Mutts, the latter of whom has established himself as one of the conference’s best highlight generators.
But it was Jordan Roland who recorded the play of the night. After hitting a tricky standstill, no-rhythm three over Painter the possession before, Roland used a behind-the-back dribble and a massive stepback to separate himself from Kevin Anderson. When Anderson leaped forward to contest the shot, Roland leaned in, trying to draw a three-shot foul.
But Roland’s stepback had created too much room for that, so Anderson landed cleanly. Roland was left to jack up a twisting, flailing, double-clutch, left-handed prayer from several feet beyond the deepest part of the three-point line, a shot he tried only because he was banking on a foul call, and a shot that no right-minded player would attempt under normal circumstances.
With any other player you’d assume the shot was a fluke, but Roland hit a similar left-handed three against Hofstra two weeks ago.
Miraculous though the shot was, it was ultimately a splash in a disappointing bucket. No Husky besides Roland and Walker scored more than five points, and even those two combined for just 26 points on 27 shots. The team shot 37 percent from the floor and 29 percent from downtown. The Huskies scored just 48 points, their lowest total since a 47–44 win over Towson more than four years ago. They haven’t scored so little in a loss since December 2014 against Harvard, and haven’t done so in conference play in more than six years.
Fortunately for the Huskies (13–14, 7–8 CAA), Towson and Drexel both lost Thursday night, meaning the Huskies remain in sixth place, one game behind Towson and a half game ahead of Elon. With only three games left to play in a conference season marked by remarkable parity, securing a sixth seed or higher is imperative for the Huskies. The top six seeds get a first-round bye in the CAA Tournament, a major advantage given the small number of games and the fatigue of playing on consecutive nights. The Blue Hens (20–8, 10–5 CAA) remained in third place.
The Huskies will look to rebound Saturday afternoon against the Drexel Dragons, who they defeated last month by 33 points. Michael Petillo and Milton Posner will call that game, with coverage beginning at 1:45 PM EST.