by Matthew MacCormack
ELON, N.C — Defying expectations is becoming a theme of the Northeastern men’s basketball team’s 2017-18 campaign.
The media projected the Huskies to finish 6th in the Colonial Athletic Association poll in the preseason. But with Saturday’s 81-59 win over Elon in Alumni Gym, the Huskies (21-9, 14-4 CAA) clinched a share of the conference’s regular season title for the first time since 2014-15.
It was Northeastern’s seventh straight win.
“It feels great,” said redshirt junior Vasa Pusica, who shook off an 0-6 start to tie his season-high with 31 points.
“We probably had a few losses earlier in the year that we should have had, but it is what it is. We finished first, it’s a great feeling.
Things looked grim in late November after the Huskies suffered four straight losses, including two ugly slip-ups to Utah State and Furman in Nashville as part of the PK80 Invitational. But the Huskies rallied in the conference slate, posting their highest conference win total since the last time they won the CAA tournament three years ago.
“Every team goes through adversity,” said Northeastern coach Bill Coen as he stood outside the locker room after the victory.
“They grew week-by-week, month-by-month. It wasn’t always perfect but they stuck together.”
It was fitting that the Huskies were led by redshirt junior point guard Pusica — the team’s leading scorer and best player. He set the tone on Saturday night, and for the whole season.
“He’s a good player,” Coen said with a laugh.
“I thought he was a little anxious to start…He settled down nicely.”
Northeastern led for all but 44 seconds in the season finale. Elon cut the Husky lead to 50-47 with 12:06 remaining on a three from Tyler Seibring (12 points), but the Huskies ended the game on a 31-12 run.
Sophomore guard Shawn Occeus (13 points, 5 rebounds, 6 steals) was a menace on the defensive end all evening long. Sophomore forward Bo Brace and redshirt sophomore Donnell Gresham each chipped in 11 points.
Senior forward Brian Dawkins led the way for the Phoenix with 13 points and seven rebounds, and senior guard Dmitri Thompson added 11 points and eight boards.
The No. 2 seed Huskies were subdued in their celebration after the game. They’ll have a first-round matchup with an opponent to be determined on Sunday, March 4 at 6 p.m. at the CAA Tournament in North Charleston.
“Of course we have bigger eyes and we want more,” Coen said.
“But for today, we’re going to celebrate being champions.”