Reminder: Northeastern faces Hofstra in the CAA Championship tonight at 7 PM. Michael Petillo, Matt Neiser, and Milton Posner will have the call from Washington D.C., with covering beginning around 15 minutes before tipoff.
By Matt Neiser
WASHINGTON — No. 6 seed vs. No. 7 seed in a ten-team tournament. It sounds like an early-round matchup that no one cares about because neither team will threaten for the title. Right?
Wrong. It’s actually a semifinal, and both teams beat top-three seeds to get there.
Confused? You must be new around here. Welcome to the CAA.
Northeastern and Elon, two teams most onlookers probably did not expect to make deep postseason runs, found themselves face-to-face in the CAA Men’s Basketball Championship semifinals on Monday night after beating No. 3 Towson and No. 2 William & Mary, respectively, the night before.
Despite similar postseason expectations, the teams’ seedings arose for different reasons. For Northeastern, it was mostly a lack of consistency and inability to close out tight games. For Elon, it was more a lack of depth and talent.
Things finally began to make a little more sense in the semifinal, as the deeper, higher-seeded team came out on top for once. Using an early-game run to thrust themselves in front, the Huskies never looked back as they put together a convincing, wire-to-wire 68–60 victory to advance to the championship game for the third year in a row.
Defense has been the Huskies’ calling card all season. They called on it once again on Monday, stifling the Phoenix offense throughout the night. Bill Coen’s squad was locked in, flying all over the court with the boundless ferocity of their canine namesake. It took nearly six minutes for the Phoenix to put a number on the board, by which time Northeastern had tallied nine points.
“Our defensive energy to start the game really set the tone for us, allowing us to get into transition a little bit, and get our confidence going,” remarked Coen.
Elon head coach Mike Schrage had plenty of praise for Coen’s defensive game plan.
“Give them credit. They had a lot of juice and a good game plan, a unique game plan in how they guard our offense [after] not even a one-day prep,” Schrage remarked. “Defensively, he’s a great coach. He did some really good things to exploit our defense.”
The biggest driver of Northeastern’s blistering two-way start? If you’ve followed this team at all the past few weeks, you probably guessed already: Max Boursiquot. By the time Elon scored their first basket, the redshirt junior had already accumulated four points, two rebounds, and two steals. His energy was infectious; his teammates followed suit as they stayed attached to bodies, contested shots, and secured rebounds to limit the Phoenix’s offensive opportunities.
While Boursiquot buoyed the Husky defense, Bolden Brace carried the offensive torch. Brace, who’s no stranger to big games against Elon — he dropped a career-high 40 points against the Phoenix his freshman year — splashed home three triples in a four-minute span partway through the first half to extend the Northeastern lead to 13. The senior added a layup to finish the first 20 minutes with a game-leading 11 points and push the Husky advantage to its peak: 35–15.
Junior Shaquille Walters, who Coen identified as one of the team’s most improved players this season, left his mark on the opening half as well. The London native drilled a shot-clock-beating three from all the way across the pond, then followed it up with a pair of free throws, a steal and gorgeous one-handed feed ahead to Brace for his aforementioned layup, and an assist on a Jordan Roland three-pointer. All told, Walters dished out a team-high four assists in the half.
It’s fortunate for the Huskies that many different players made a significant impact in the first half; Roland, who had a relatively quiet game against Towson the night before, struggled again to start the semifinal. Though he chipped in eight first-half points, it was on an inefficient 3–10 shooting.
Roland did find other ways to impact the game; he finished the half with two rebounds, three assists, a block, and zero turnovers. However, he was nowhere near his usual lofty standards.
That’s been the biggest question for Northeastern this season: can they stay competitive when Roland isn’t on his game? In this tournament, the answer’s been yes. Boursiquot, Brace, Walters, and Co. have all stepped up, and that’s why the Huskies are playing in the championship game.
Despite chugging along for much of the half, the Huskies’ offense sputtered as they neared halftime. The Phoenix took advantage, mounting a quick 6–0 run that forced a timeout from Coen with 33 seconds remaining. Roland hit a baseline jumper right out of the huddle to bring the Northeastern lead back to 16 points, throwing a splash of water on Elon’s spark.
The Phoenix kept striking that flint in the second stanza, but the Huskies were right there every time to stamp out the nascent flames. After the two sides traded a few baskets to begin the frame, freshman Hunter McIntosh knocked down a triple. Roland responded with a trey of his own, but the Phoenix came right back with an 8–0 run courtesy of a short-range McIntosh jumper and three straight interior makes from Federico Poser to cut the Husky lead to 11.
All-CAA Second Team swingman Marcus Sheffield finally joined the party after that, pouring in 13 points in a six-minute span as Elon whittled the Northeastern lead to seven with just under three minutes remaining.
“He’s one of the hardest matchups in the league. Luckily we have a guy with Shaquille’s size and length who can kind of match it,” Coen remarked. “He’s quick enough to keep him off the dribble and long enough to get a hand in his shot pocket. That being said, I’m not sure anyone can guard him when he gets going.”
The Huskies were on their heels, but a familiar face burst back onto the scene to save the day.
“I just kind of felt like the game was getting close,” Roland explained. “I just wanted to do my part to help close out the game. I wanted to get a little more aggressive toward the end of the game even though I wasn’t shooting that well.”
Pull-up, triple, good.
Elon got two looks at a three-pointer on the other end, but McIntosh and Sheffield couldn’t connect. Rebound Northeastern.
Crossover, three-ball, money.
There’s the Jordan Roland Husky fans are accustomed to — the one who takes over games.
Elon was relegated to the foul game after that, and the Huskies knocked down enough shots at the charity stripe to close the game out.
Northeastern becomes just the fifth team in CAA history to reach three straight championship games, setting up a rematch of last year’s battle with the Hofstra Pride. The title-game rematch will be just the third since the league’s inception.
Coen started both Sunday and Monday’s press conferences by reiterating how grateful he is to still be playing this late into March, adding, “With everything that’s on the line, an NCAA bid and everything, there’s nothing else like it.”
Brace, a senior, is reveling in the pressure of his final season, remarking, “I’ve finally realized that every game could be my last and it’s made this tournament super awesome and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Hopefully we can get another one tomorrow.”
The Huskies have a tough task ahead of them, as No. 1 seeded Hofstra comes into the game blazing hot. Joe Mihalich’s squad won their previous two tournament games by an average of 16 points, including a 14-point drubbing of an impressive Delaware team in the other semifinal.
Said Coen of the impending matchup, “I think they’ve played with a chip. I think they’ve had great senior leadership. It’s going to be a difficult game for us, but that’s what you want if you’re a competitor. You want to go against the best, you want to try yourself against the best, and that’s what this time is all about.”