by Matthew MacCormack
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — If there’s anyone that knows resilience on the Northeastern men’s basketball team, it’s Shawn Occeus.
The junior guard missed 19 games this season. He suffered an ankle injury just before Northeastern’s opener against BU, and suffered another setback just as he was reaching full health mid-season.
But in Monday night’s semi-final matchup with Charleston in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament — just Occeus’ second game back after a nine-game absence — the 2017-18 CAA Defensive Player of the Year showed what resilience is all about.
Occeus scored a team-high 17 points to lead the two-seeded Huskies (22-10) over No. 3 Charleston in a gritty, 70-67 victory at the North Charleston Coliseum. Redshirt senior point Vasa Pusica chipped in 13 points and seven assists, Jordan Roland added 10 points, and the Huskies held the Cougars without a field goal for the final 3:13 to seal the win.
Northeastern got its sweet revenge after blowing a 17-point second half lead to Charleston in last year’s championship game.
“We’re a lot more matured and experience,” Occeus said, comparing the two seasons.
“When the building got loud towards the end of the game we just stuck to it. Everybody was communicating, coaches were talking to us and we were listening.”
The Huskies will take on top-seeded Hofstra in the CAA Championship tomorrow at 7 p.m, with the winner receiving the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Matt MacCormack, Justin Littman and Michael Petillo will have the call on WRBB 104.9, with coverage beginning at 6:30.
Charleston senior forward Jarrell Brantley tallied 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to lead the Cougars (24-9). Junior guard Grant Riller (22 ppg), who joined Brantley on the All-CAA First-Team, was held to 10 points on five of 13 shooting, and missed all five of his three-point attempts.
Sophomore guard Brevin Galloway (12 points) was also in double-figures for Charleston.
“It was really going to be hard to top last year’s championship game,” said Northeastern head coach Bill Coen.
“I think tonight’s game was equally as intense, competitive, and spirited.”
"2018 CAA Final blah blah blah…”
— Northeastern MBB (@GoNUmbasketball) March 12, 2019
Charleston took a 65-63 lead on a Riller layup with 3:13 to go in the game. Northeastern senior center Anthony Green (9 points, 6 rebounds) was fouled on a rebound attempt moments later, and hit one of two free throws to cut the lead to one with 2:43 remaining.
Charleston missed twice on their next two possessions, and the Huskies missed one shot while giving up a turnover on the other.
Pusica ended the scoreless stretch with a sweet up-and-under layup with 37 seconds left to put the Huskies back up, 66-65. Coen appeared to be calling out a play, but the noise level from the local Charleston crowd was too deafening. Pusica improvised.
“I always defer to the point guard,” Coen said.
“It’s his show, it’s his team…that’s the trust level I have in him; he saw an opportunity and he took it.”
Brantley missed a layup on the other end, and Pusica sunk two free throws to push the lead to 68-65 with 17 seconds left.
The next trip down, Charleston senior guard Marquise Pointer was fouled on a three-point attempt. Pointer hit the first, but missed the second free throw. His attempt to intentionally miss the third was unsuccessful, and the made free throw put the Husky lead at 68-67 with three seconds to go. Northeastern redshirt junior guard Donnell Gresham (8 points, 5 rebounds) hit two free-throws to push the lead to 70-67, and a last-second heave from Riller was off the mark.
Occeus guarded Riller on many possessions, but credited his teammates and coaches for limiting the star scorer.
“It just wasn’t me tonight; it was everybody,” Occeus said.
“All the guys stepped up and played, and did their part. I just tried to make it difficult for [Riller]…Credit to the coaches, because they gave us a great game plan on him and all we had to do was execute it.”
Pusica was asked after the game if getting revenge over Charleston in their home territory made up for last year’s championship loss.
“A little bit,” Pusica said with a smile.
“It’s a great feeling winning in this arena against this team.”
But a victory over Hofstra in tomorrow’s championship — and an automatic bid to the Big Dance — that would make it all worth it.
“A win tomorrow would definitely make it up,” Pusica said.