If it wasn’t obvious by now, there’s some kind of magic in the air for Northeastern men’s basketball.
In a season thrown into chaos by the unpredictability of a pandemic, with the youngest roster in the CAA, amid injuries that sidelined three big men simultaneously, and after being pummeled by high-major teams throughout the non-conference slate, the Huskies are still undefeated in conference play.
They won their sixth straight game on Sunday afternoon after a Chris Doherty putback with 15 seconds to play. 68–66 Northeastern. Ballgame.
From the start, and for the entire first half, it didn’t appear that a finishing blow would be necessary. The Huskies leapt out to an 11–2 lead in the first six-and-a-half minutes behind a flurry of quick, assertive drives into the paint. Tyson Walker led the attack, earning a number of short floaters and jumpers in transition and in the halfcourt. He and Coleman Stucke would lead the Huskies with eight points apiece by halftime.
Meanwhile, the Cougars had about as much luck finding the basket as a blind pirate does finding buried treasure. The Huskies rotated well, shutting off easy lanes to the paint and forcing the Cougars into contested looks. When the Cougars improved the quality of their looks, they still struggled to find a rhythm, with Brendan Tucker being the sole bright spot. Minnesota transfer Payton Willis was scoreless, as was Saint Joseph’s transfer Lorenzo Edwards. Zep Jasper cashed in on just one of seven attempts.
“Our defense has traveled with us,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen. “[By the metrics] we’re the best defensive team in the league, and usually you need veteran players to do that. The freshman players get caught on the trick plays, or they haven’t seen certain actions enough. They don’t have enough in their reads in their database to be so consistent defensively.
“Our young guys [can] really absorb a scouting report. As a coach you’re always a little bit nervous in giving them too much, because you don’t want them thinking — you want them playing . . . But this group has been remarkable in terms of what they’ve been able to process and execute in the game.”
The first-half numbers reflect the Huskies overwhelming defense. Charleston shot 28 percent from the floor against the Huskies’ 50 percent, made one of nine threes against the Huskies’ four of nine, and lost the rebounding battle by eight. Most importantly, the Huskies led 34–20.
Six minutes later, the lead had evaporated.
The Cougars had already equaled their first-half total. Willis and Jasper had discovered their mojo. The Huskies inherited the Cougars’ first-half inability to penetrate the paint, then tacked on a few turnovers that jumpstarted the Cougars’ transition game.
By the midway point of the second half, Charleston had built a seven-point lead. Northeastern had mustered just ten points and still didn’t have a double-digit scorer. The tug-of-war that ensued over the next handful of possessions left the lead hanging at six with five minutes to play, easily the most serious threat to the Huskies since Hofstra had them in blowout territory in the second half on January 7.
But Northeastern woke up just in time. A couple of buckets apiece from Jahmyl Telfort and Shaq Walters did the trick, with a Walters stepback jumper tying things at 66 with a minute to play.
And then a catlike Telfort block on Tucker set the stage for an unlikely finish.
Walker ran a pick-and-roll with Doherty, then drove along the left side of the lane. Jasper pursued him and Osinachi Smart peeled off of Doherty to meet Walker at the rim. The contest worked, but Doherty was left uncovered in the middle of the lane.
The Huskies clogged the middle to pressure Jasper into a missed layup, then smothered Smart on the putback attempt. Game over.
“This group has come together quicker and without expectation, because you really don’t expect a team without a senior on the roster to play at this high level,” Coen noted. “We’re getting leadership from up and down the lineup. Guys really enjoy each other, they enjoy playing for each other. They don’t want to let their teammate down.”
As has become typical in conference play, the Huskies got balanced contributions up and down their roster. Telfort notched 16 points to lead the way. Walker chipped in 10 points and six dimes. Walters complimented his 15 points with eight rebounds, and played a large role in shutting down Charleston’s guards in the first half.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for where we are at,” Coen said of Walters. “He’s made big, big shots, he always guards the opponent’s best player, and his intensity and competitiveness is igniting the younger guys.” Coen also remarked that Telfort is “one of the best two-way freshmen I’ve seen come through this program.”
Tucker had another excellent game for the Cougars, posting 20 points. Jasper and Willis chipped in 10 points apiece for a Cougar squad that fell to 5–8 overall and 3–3 in conference.
The Huskies (7–5, 6–0 CAA) will return to Boston for Saturday and Sunday games against James Madison, both at noon Eastern. WRBB will call those games, with coverage beginning about ten minutes before tip-off. With all the uncertainty over how many games will be played this season, every win only makes it more likely that the Huskies run away with the CAA regular season crown.
“How can you not enjoy coaching this group?” Coen said. “Toughness and grit all the way around . . . This group has shown time and time again the type of resiliency that you love to see as a coach. They just never give up, they never stop believing in themselves and their teammates.”