by Milton Posner
When Northeastern last visited Charleston, they limped out after the season’s toughest loss. A 17-point lead over the College of Charleston Cougars evaporated last March, taking the Huskies’ hopes of a NCAA Tournament berth with it.
On Thursday, Northeastern returned for the first game of the Charleston Classic. Their opponent wasn’t the Cougars, but the Alabama Crimson Tide, one of five teams in the tournament that made March Madness last season.
The Huskies didn’t blink. They opened the game with eight straight points and never trailed in a statement 68-52 win at TD Arena.
“We’ve had our share of wins over the years against power-conference teams,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said. “I think it gives you a measure of respect nationally.”
It's no longer a surprise when Northeastern beats a high-major opponent. The Huskies have made it a habit over recent years.
2014: Florida State
2016: Michigan State
— Steve Hewitt (@steve_hewitt) November 15, 2018
The Huskies will face No. 16 Virginia Tech — who defeated Ball State 73-64 earlier in the day — in the semi-final of the tournament. Tip off is set for 11 a.m. on Friday.
Vasa Pusica recovered from a five-point, four-turnover first half, making all four of his threes and logging 20 points to go with five assists. Bolden Brace chipped in 11 points and five rebounds. But it was Jeremy Miller that gave the Huskies the extra boost, scoring 11 points on six shots in 21 minutes.
“I have a tendency to sometimes play with hesitation,” Miller said after the game. “But today I came out, had trust in my teammates, they trusted me: coach and the coaching staff trusted me.”
The Crimson Tide (2-1) never shrank the Huskies’ (2-1) lead to less than seven. Northeastern outshot Alabama by 15 percent from the floor and foul line, and 37 percent from three-point range.
“It’s hard when you can’t make consistent threes,” Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said. “They kinda shrink their defense a little bit more daring us to shoot and we just didn’t make them pay.”
Of Alabama’s three top players — Kira Lewis Jr., Donta Hall and John Petty Jr. — Petty was the lone bright spot, tallying 17 points and five rebounds.
“Our pick-and-roll coverages weren’t as sound as we expected them to be,” Petty remarked. “Some of our rotations were late and we paid for them.”
Kira Lewis Jr., Collin Sexton’s replacement at point guard — and the youngest basketball player in Division 1 at 17 years, seven months — shot 3-10 from the field. More perplexing was Hall, the team’s leading scorer who set an Alabama record by shooting 73 percent last year. He played just 19 minutes, pulled down three rebounds and shot the ball once.
“They did a great job of keeping a body on him,” Johnson said. “Even when we drove, they didn’t really help off of Donta. That kinda cut off our lob game a little bit. Even when we missed a shot, they had a couple of bodies on Donta to try to minimize his offensive rebounding capabilities.
.@GoNUmbasketball took down Alabama, 68-52.
— WRBB Sports (@wrbbsports) November 15, 2018
Miller was part of the effort in guarding Hall. The Milton, Mass. native is a 6-foot-10-inch junior with outside shooting touch who can space the floor and relieve starting center Anthony Green down low. He played nine minutes per game last year, down from 19 the year before.
“Jeremy’s had a couple of nagging injuries that have kinda held him back and messed with his timing a little bit,” Coen noted. “I think that he’s starting to get that back now.”
Northeastern isn’t done facing powerhouses. They’ll face the 16th-ranked Hokies, with a trip to the Charleston Classic championship on the line.
“It’s really fun,” Miller said with a grin. “It brings out a different side of us. We have something to prove this year and we’re gonna do it.”