BOSTON — You’d be forgiven for thinking that disaster was in store.
As they entered Matthews Arena on Saturday morning, the Northeastern Huskies had lost five of their last seven contests, each one featuring a blown second-half lead, faltering defense, and lackluster rebounding.
Their Saturday afternoon opponent seemed perfectly primed to exploit those weakness. The Charleston Cougars rank third in the CAA in scoring. They boast quality three-point shooters and athletic big men, and senior guard Grant Riller routinely drives to the basket with impunity, torching defenses with hyper-efficient shooting around the basket.
Flash forward to the 13:46 mark of the second half. The Huskies lead by two. Neither team has led by more than five points, and the lead has changed hands nine times. The game appears destined for the same close finish as the teams’ meeting last month.
The Husky defense throttled the Cougars for the next ten minutes. Passes were picked off, balls stripped from careless dribblers, shots contested into misses and those same misses corralled. A combination of Jordan Roland jumpers and Max Boursiquot layups produced 17 points. The Cougars scored none, and that was all Northeastern needed. They built a 19-point lead en route to a statement 65–51 win.
This can’t be emphasized enough. Northeastern, a team that has struggled in the past month defending CAA cellar-dwellers, held the third-place Charleston Cougars scoreless for 10 straight minutes.
“We wanted to make sure we defended without fouling,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said. “It’s really hard to keep them off the foul line, especially with Grant Riller, who’s great at attacking the basket and getting to the line. I thought one of the best things we did today was defending without fouling and finishing defensive possessions with rebounds. When we do that we’re able to get out in transition and cause some great offensive possessions.”
The Huskies’ defensive dominance was a team effort, but two players made outsized contributions. The first is Guilien Smith, who guarded Riller for most of the second half.
Riller is generally regarded as the favorite to win CAA Player of the Year. Smith held him scoreless for the entire second half. Riller finished with just nine points on 12 shots and turned the ball over three times.
“Riller’s a guy who can get hot early and really carry a team . . . he’s going to go down as one of the best all-time CAA players,” Coen noted. “Guilien was tremendous today. He was laser-locked in, did a great job on his defensive assignment, rebounded the ball, played with a physical presence, really gave us a chance . . . [He had] high energy and was there step-for-step with him and kept him in front, which is really difficult to do.”
The other spectacular Husky defender was Boursiquot, who is building as good a case as anyone for Defensive Player of the Year. Boursiquot held his ground in the post all game against Charleston forwards Sam Miller, Jaylen McManus, and Osinachi Smart, the smallest of whom still has two inches and 20 pounds on Boursiquot.
“I pride myself on defense and seeing guys defend just gives me more and more energy to keep defending,” the redshirt junior explained. “Seeing other guys do it, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Charleston lapsed into inefficient isolation basketball. Weak-side movement ground to a halt as players took turns trying to create for themselves and failed under strong on-ball pressure from Husky guards. Northeastern, just as Coen emphasized, defended without fouling, holding Charleston to a season-low 51 points without putting them in the bonus in either half.
The Huskies, led by Boursiquot, turned their stops into offense. Coen considered Boursiquot’s effort — six rebounds and a career-high 18 points — to be his best of the season.
“There’s always a difference in height or a difference in size when I play the five,” Boursiquot explained. “So there’s always a quickness advantage. I was more aggressive today; I think I exploited that . . . I got a couple drop-off passes for dunks which gave us energy and a good boost.”
Tyson Walker posted an active 11 points in what Coen called perhaps his “best game in a while.”
Jordan Roland added 17 points and five rebounds. Though he never found the range from downtown, he helped the Husky offense with a number of shot-creating passes and preserved Northeastern’s movement and spacing.
Bolden Brace, who has arguably slowed the offense at times this year with hesitant play, was as aggressive as he’s been all season. He sought driving lanes, broke down the Cougar defense, and logged 13 points, mostly on layups. He also followed up a 14-rebound performance against UNCW on Thursday with an eight-board afternoon on Saturday, helping the Huskies best the Cougars on the offensive and defensive glass. He was visibly and atypically fired up, screaming “LET’S GO!” on his way to the huddle after a Husky run forced Charleston head coach Earl Grant to call timeout.
“He’s an x-factor for us,” Coen said. “When he rebounds the ball and pushes the tempo, it makes it easy for other guys to get easy baskets.”
The sum of those efforts led to what Coen called, as far all all-around play was concerned, “our best half of the year.”
The win marked a milestone for Coen, as he passed former Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint in career conference wins. Coen’s 159 wins are second only to Jim Larrañaga’s 183. But in the post-game press conference Coen was in an altogether different headspace, one that reminds us of the power of sports to connect people.
“In the short term, we’re all about trying to win basketball games,” he said. “In the long term, we’re trying to create an environment where we create unbreakable bonds between teammates, coaches, staff, relationships that last a lifetime. We’re very fortunate to do what we do. I’ve been blessed with some great coaches in my life that influenced me and have taken time away from their families to help me fall in love with the game and be a better person.”
He then explained that Larry Kollath, a teammate of his from Hamilton College in the 1980s, had recently succumbed to cancer. Kollath funeral service was scheduled to begin at 2 PM on Saturday in Asheville, North Carolina, just as Northeastern was putting the finishing touches on its win.
“There’s about 40 Hamilton guys that are down there celebrating his life,” Coen said. “Larry Kollath was a college All-American, but he was an All-Universe human being. Great friend, and I love him, and I’ll miss him.
“I shared with the team before [the game] that it’s my hope and goal as a coach to create an environment and a bond that someday, when adversity hits their lives, their teammates are there by their side.”