Photo Credit: CAA Basketball

Northeastern Loses CAA Championship

By Milton Posner

WASHINGTON — Before the swarming zone defense, before the frantic scrambles for offensive rebounds, before the drives and the kickouts and the one-on-one brilliance, Tuesday night’s game was about vengeance.

The Northeastern Huskies knew it better than anybody. Two years ago, after locking up a share of the CAA regular-season title, battling their way to the conference championship, and building a 17-point lead in the second half, the Huskies slowly collapsed as the Charleston Cougars clawed their way to an overtime victory.

The Cougars went to the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies went home.

That loss stayed with the Huskies. It fueled them. As they embarked on their 2018–19 season, they focused on a singular goal: returning to the championship game and seizing the moment that had slipped through their fingers. After exacting revenge on Charleston in the semifinal, the Huskies did just that, knocking off the Hofstra Pride, 82–74, to win the March Madness berth they’d dreamed of for a year. It was vengeance, and it felt fantastic.

The Huskies went to the NCAA Tournament. The Pride went home.

But on Tuesday night, in a rematch with the Pride, the Huskies found out what the other end of vengeance feels like. In a remarkably close, ludicrously energetic championship game, the Huskies fell to the Pride, 70–61.

The Pride are going to the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies are going home.

“It’s tough,” a visibly choked-up Max Boursiquot said after the game. “It’s called March Madness for a reason.”

“That feeling of losing and then coming back the next year and having another opportunity is a special feeling,” Bolden Brace added. “You don’t get that unless you lose . . . They played with an edge and played with that desire to win and I think they deserve it.”

Though Hofstra was coming off blowout wins over Drexel and Delaware, it was Northeastern that struck first, running up an early lead thanks to aggressive drives. Sometimes those drives yielded layups, other times they yielded open threes off the catch for Husky guards who filled to the corner when Hofstra shifted to protect the paint. With his team trailing 10–3, Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich called for time.

While the scoring came more evenly after that, the Huskies continued to earn quality looks. Hofstra famously plays a matchup zone, a combination of zone and man-to-man principles that allows for pressuring ballhandlers on the perimeter without the draining effort of man defense. The Huskies, who struggled against zone defenses in their other CAA Tournament games against Towson and Elon, countered by repeatedly entering the ball to small-ball center Max Boursiquot near the foul line, warping the zone and freeing up cutting and kickout opportunities. The Huskies’ threes were finally falling, they hustled to every rebound and loose ball, and held the Pride at bay.

But the squad with the best regular-season record couldn’t be subdued indefinitely, and when Husky point guard Tyson Walker aggravated a left shoulder injury and went to the bench, the Pride seized the momentum and sent their fans into a frenzy. Walker returned but struggled, finishing with just four points.

“When he started the second half he just didn’t look right to me, just didn’t look his normal competitive self,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen noted. “I gotta give him a world of credit just for going out there and trying. His competitiveness, his grit and determination, and his toughness are really admirable . . . that was a physical game and he put himself out there and put himself on the line for the team and the program.”

After a few minutes of hanging around and trading buckets, Hofstra finally drew even. Three Jalen Ray free throws were bookended by two eerily similar sequences in which a Hofstra guard drove into the paint and had a layup blocked, only for his teammates to secure the rebound and nail a three as the shot clock ran down. The upshot of these three mediocre possessions: nine points.

Guilien Smith, not to be outdone, let the Pride have the lead for all of 18 seconds.

By this point the energy in the building was palpable. Each team sensed the audible footsteps of the other and the gradual ticking of the clock, and boosted their energy accordingly. It didn’t matter that their workload — three playoff games in three days — was unprecedented in their schedules this season; they played like their jerseys had been set ablaze.

“The way we summoned that energy was just playing together and using each other and feeding off each other’s energy,” Brace said. “When somebody was down, I think there was always someone there to pick them up, and I think that just goes to show you how good of a team we were this year.”

A turnaround jumper from Shaq Walters afforded the Huskies a two-point halftime edge, far narrower than their double-digit halftime margins in their last two games. But that was the only real constant for much of the game: neither team could free itself from the other. For a 23-minute stretch spanning both halves, neither team built a lead greater than five points.

There was plenty for the Huskies to be happy about at the break. Boursiquot, Walters, and Brace all had at least five points and three rebounds, and all of them were shooting efficiently. On the opposite side of the box score, Eli Pemberton decidedly wasn’t; he’d missed eight of his 11 shots amid excellent pressure from Walters and Smith.

But there were also deficiencies that allowed the Pride to close the gap. Roland, the conference’s leading scorer, had shot the ball just three times. Hofstra pulled down six more offensive rebounds than Northeastern and netted 10 second-chance points to the Huskies’ none. Isaac Kante, the lone man in the middle on a team built around guards, snatched 10 rebounds.

The second half began with promise, as Brace knocked down a catch-and-shoot three from the corner. Brace often played with hesitation this season, opting for ball fakes, halfhearted drives, and slow-moving handoffs instead of relying on his elite perimeter shooting. That version of him completely vanished in the CAA Tournament, as he performed with the conviction, determination, and leadership of a senior who didn’t want to play his last college game.

Desure Buie didn’t want to play his last game either. While his scoring buoyed the Pride all night, it was his passing that turned heads, excited fans, and catalyzed the Hofstra run. He began with a quick first step around Walker, which forced Walters to help off Pemberton. Without looking, Buie wrapped a magnificent bounce pass around his head to a now-wide open Pemberton in the corner, who finished off the play to retake the lead.

Just seconds later, Buie snuck up behind Boursiquot and jabbed the ball loose. On the ensuing two-on-one, Walters planned his chase-down block, timing his approach and jump to meet Buie at the rim. But with the level of grace and smarts Buie has shown this year, he wasn’t about to be on anyone’s highlight reel. Instead he added to his own and forced Coen to call timeout.

The Pride looked poised to pull away and the Huskies needed an energy boost. And did Max Boursiquot ever respond.

Boursiquot has been anything and everything the Huskies needed to turn around a season marked by an unrealistic number of close, disappointing losses. He provides shooting, passing, positional versatility, perimeter and post defense, rebounding, and, most importantly, energy. He treats every rebound and loose ball as if it’s his birthright.

Right out of the timeout, Boursiquot, under duress, threw a picture-perfect cross-court pass to Roland for a triple. When Roland missed a three the next trip down, Boursiquot bodied Kante — who outweighs him by about 30 pounds — to snatch the rebound, received a pass at the top of the arc, and beat Kante with a right-to-left crossover and first step so quick that he seemed to teleport from the perimeter to the block. Even when he stumbled and lost the ball on a drive, Boursiquot grabbed it from Kante and threw a spot-on pass to a teammate — all while sitting on the floor.

When Boursiquot’s offense forced Mihalich to call timeout, his message to Kante in the huddle was simple: we need to defend Max Boursiquot because he’s killing us.

That said, Kante had his way offensively with Boursiquot on a handful of possessions. Kante would establish deep position, earning himself either an easy layup off a feed or an offensive rebound when a perimeter shot clanged off the iron. Though Boursiquot enjoyed slightly greater success when fronting Kante to deny him the ball, the Pride forward still posted a preposterous nine points and 15 rebounds. He had as many offensive rebounds (six) as the entire Northeastern team.

But it was not Kante that governed play down the stretch. It was Buie.

Buie had an admirable campaign a year ago, but was considered the third offensive option behind Pemberton and two-time CAA Player of the Year Justin Wright-Foreman. After Boursiquot and Roland each picked up their fourth foul and headed to the bench with 5:23 to play, and with Hofstra’s other top scorers — Pemberton and Jalen Ray — not shooting efficiently, Buie seized his moment.

He began with a tough, drifting, pullup long two, a difficult shot with low value. He made it anyway. As Northeastern’s offense sputtered amid suffocating on-ball pressure from the Pride, Buie stretched the lead to nine with a quick drive, a pump fake to get Guilien Smith in the air, and a strong finish through contact.

With less than two minutes left and the shot clock ticking down on a stagnant Hofstra possession, Buie sized up a top-notch defender in Guilien Smith, threw him a few crossovers, and fired up a contested three when the dribbles failed to earn him a sliver of separation.

Buie wound up on the floor. The ball wound up in the bucket.

Despite Roland’s impressive drifting three a short while later, Buie’s bucket proved the dagger. The Huskies’ second-half fouling had put the Pride in the double bonus, so the Huskies couldn’t get lucky with the Pride missing the front end of one-and-ones. They could only watch as the Pride made every one of their free throws.

The Pride had their first March Madness berth since 2001. They also had their revenge.

“It is awfully sweet,” Mihalich said after the on-court celebration, his undone blue tie still hanging from his neck. “Not just because we won. It’s something to be really proud of. We beat a bunch of champions. The championship went through them.”

“This feeling is everything,” Ray said. “This has been our mission since day one . . . this time we completed our mission.”

“We came up about 20 minutes short,” Coen said. “I thought we played a really strong first half, very competitive game overall, and these guys played their hearts out. But in the end I thought it was a little bit too much Desure Buie.”

With 19 seconds to play and the outcome no longer in doubt, both coaches opted for a platoon swap. While the Hofstra players enjoyed the applause, cheers, and adulation of a jubilant fan section, the Huskies filed off the court and into the waiting embrace of Bill Coen. The moment was especially poignant for Brace, Roland, and Smith, who ended their college careers on a brutal loss.

“I thanked those guys for their unwavering commitment to Northeastern University, to this program, all their hard work and dedication,” Coen said, his voice breaking a bit. “So much goes unseen — the long days in the weight room, long days of training, hours of practice, hours of individual time, hours of watching tape. It’s a commitment, and that group was a special group.

“Bo has played in three CAA Championship games in his four years; he’s made an incredible mark on this program. Jordan has made an incredible mark on this program. And I think if you asked every player on our team, maybe the favorite teammate in the locker room is Guilien Smith. In a short time he’s made an incredible impact in terms of relationships, and ultimately that’s what this whole experience is all about.

“You’d love to win championships each and every year, but . . . what lasts is the mutual respect that you earn by giving your best. And when you do that, whether you win or lose, nobody can take that from you for the rest of your life. These guys will share a bond because they know they gave it up for each other, and that’s the real championship in my mind.”

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