Huskies End Season With Semifinal Loss to Drexel

Story by Justin Diament and Milton Posner

Photos by Jordan Baron

HARRISONBURG, VA — “Whenever it ends, it ends.”

“It’s like you’re on a treadmill, you’re running about ten miles an hour, and somebody hits the stop button. And everything stops. Your mind, the players’ rhythm, ‘what time is practice tomorrow’, ‘what are we doing’, ‘what do we have to get better at’ — you’re just in that kind of cycle.”

Bill Coen had good reason to feel that way. One night after setting the Northeastern record for career wins, one night after his team notched a resounding playoff win without two players who had started every game to that point, they were done. A conference season that began with a seven-game winning streak and yielded a share of the regular season title ended with a 74–67 loss to Drexel in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament.

“The thing that doesn’t change at the end of the year is the emotion in the locker room,” Coen said, clearly dealing with plenty of it himself. “When you see guys get visibly emotional, although it’s tough, I think that’s a good sign. It shows how much they care, it shows how important it is to them, and it shows how much pride and character they have.”

Without the services of Shaquille Walters for the second day in a row, and without Jason Strong for most of the night, the Huskies couldn’t overcome Drexel’s potent, balanced attack or the one-dimensional nature of their own shorthanded offense.

“Ten days ago, a lot of us were in beds not even knowing if we were going to play,” forward Jahmyl Telfort said. “We practiced probably three times before the tournament.”

“We had guys who played in the game who weren’t even close to 100 percent,” Coen noted. “We had guys who were basically coming to the tournament without having practiced. So we were just trying to cobble it together with different guys and different lineups.”

Early on, Northeastern started relying on just two players to carry the scoring load, as All-CAA First Teamer Tyson Walker and Sixth Man of the Year Telfort notched 25 of the Huskies’ 29 first-half points. Telfort, who has typically had frigid first halves and white-hot second halves, turned in a performance to remember, ending the first frame with a game-high 13.

Walker was close behind with 12, and while both shooters posted efficient lines, Walker’s four missed threes — including an airball on his first attempt — were a harbinger of things to come.

Northeastern searched constantly for a third hot hand in Walters’s stead. The ailing Strong subbed in, committed several errors including an unforced inbound violation, and was done for the night. Vito Cubrilo played 23 minutes and contributed mightily with effort and aggression, but didn’t spark the offense much. Chris Doherty chipped in three points and five valuable rebounds, but was exceeded by his counterpart James Butler, who notched 12 points and 12 boards. Doherty did impact the game with the sort of defense that box scores elide, but the Dragons’ 38–26 rebounding advantage stung.

The Huskies’ defense kept them afloat. Northeastern made things difficult for Drexel ballhandlers — filling passing lanes, snatching steals, co-opting the shot clock as a sixth defender, and forcing Drexel to settle for poor shots.

“They’re really aggressive with their hands,” Drexel head coach Zach Spiker explained. “Coach Coen has built a culture of playing and defending without fouling.”

Unlike their wire-to-wire masterpiece from Sunday night, however, this iron defense would not last. As the first half progressed, the Dragons poked holes in the Husky fortifications, finding open looks under the hoop, in the midrange, and beyond the arc. They got diverse first-half contributions, with Xavier Bell, Zach Walton, and Camren Wynter notching seven points and TJ Bickerstaff adding six. Northeastern finished the half down just five, but Drexel held significant momentum and the Husky offense was still searching for answers.

Early in the second frame, Coen reached into his bag of tricks again and found an unexpected answer in reserve forward Alexander Nwagha. Nwagha, who had played just 41 minutes in the Huskies 18 previous games, restarted the defense with his length, leaping, and activity. Cubrilo also returned to the floor and made unexpected defensive contributions, grabbing two key steals and forcing an additional turnover as the Huskies clawed their way back.

Drexel kept Northeastern at arm’s length for the first half of the final period, but Northeastern finally made their move with eight minutes remaining. Telfort put in a nifty layup, followed by a fastbreak finish from Walker, a free throw from Doherty, and an emphatic stepback three from Telfort to bring the Huskies within one.

“We put a little game pressure on them,” Coen said. “Until that point, we hadn’t put any game pressure on them. We just needed one more stop.”

They didn’t get it. Drexel’s offense lit up and regrew the lead. The Dragons’ shooting barrage included the first of two threes from Butler, who had made just two treys all season.

“I knew it was going in,” Wynter said. “JB’s a good shooter and in practice he shoots guard numbers.”

“He’s shot a whole lot in his career, they just haven’t been in games yet,” Spiker added. “James Butler took advantage of the pandemic. James Butler evolved his game.”

Wynter, Walton, and Bell each turned in a double-digit performance on 50 perfect shooting or better, while Bickerstaff nearly matched Butler in rebounds. Defeating these performances would have required brilliance from Northeastern’s stars. They did get an 30-point masterpiece from Telfort, who also defended Wynter for long stretches.

“You could score 60 points or you could score zero,” a dejected Telfort said. “A loss is a loss.”

Walker finished with 23 points, four boards, and five assists, though his one-for-eight mark from downtown damaged his efficiency.

“I thought we did a great job on him, making everything tough, putting multiple bodies on him,” Wynter said. “We were just trying to tire him out and make him take a lot of contested shots, and we did just that.”

But the rest of the Huskies combined for just 14 points on 29 percent shooting, not enough to overcome Drexel’s four double-digit scorers. And thus ended a season that exceeded expectations in so many respects.

“Even though it was a young group, it was able to accomplish a lot of great things,” Coen said. “We earned a share of the CAA regular season title. I think we had the most road wins in the conference.

“It’s the beginning, not the end.”

Men’s Basketball Outlasts Elon to Earn Weekend Sweep

By Peyton Doyle and Milton Posner

BOSTON — Northeastern men’s basketball entered Sunday afternoon’s rematch with Elon after demolishing the Phoenix the day before. A game that stayed close through halftime was decided by a furious 11–0 run to begin the second half.

Sunday’s game was precisely the opposite. After opening a double-digit lead four minutes in, Northeastern (3–5, 2–0 CAA) held off a furious second-half comeback from Elon (3–3, 0–2 CAA) to win 66–58. The weekend sweep marks a stark turnaround for a Husky team that spent its non-conference slate being bludgeoned by high-major teams.

The Huskies began the afternoon on a torrid stretch, sinking their first eight shots. Freshman Coleman Stucke led the way, connecting on his first two triples. By the time Northeastern missed a shot, they led 19–7.

The Huskies’ run was driven in good part by their first starting lineup tweak of the season. With usual starting center Greg Eboigbodin suffering from spasms before the game, Jason Strong slid down to the five and Jahmyl Telfort joined the group.

“It changes my mindset,” Strong said. “Being the five, I have to be the best rebounder out there. I have to be the anchor of the defense and that changes my style.”

Northeastern Head Coach Bill Coen noted that while the move gave Strong a jump-shot and pick-and-pop mismatch against traditional post players, his most important rationale for the move was Strong’s familiarity with Elon’s Princeton offense.

“It was more about brains over brawn in that situation,” Coen explained. “He had done it before last year, he had played a little five against them . . . He was the most experienced guy at that spot and I thought he did a tremendous job.”

Elon answered Northeastern’s opening run with one of their own, working the ball inside to make it a 21–15 game with 12 minutes to play in the first half. Part of this was Federico Poser, Elon’s big man off the bench, contributing multiple buckets after not playing the previous day. Coen brought in Alexander Nwagha, who immediately made his presence felt down low with a spectacular block on Poser.

The Huskies turned right around and put together a 12–0 run, capped by a Jahmyl Telfort slam.

In the closing minutes of the half, Elon’s Hunter McIntosh reminded people why he is the reigning CAA Rookie of the Year, scoring six points to close the deficit to ten entering the break. 

Neither team had found the bottom of the net from downtown since the 15-minute mark of the first half. They each connected on a pair of triples in the first two and a half minutes after the break, although both finished with subpar efforts from distance.

“In the second half of a back-to-back series your legs go a little bit and you lose some of your three point range,” Coen said. “We had to rely a little more on getting to the basket.”

With 14 minutes to play, Strong ended a brief scoring drought for the Huskies with his second triple of the game. The junior finished with a strong 17 points and seven boards.

As Elon fought back down the stretch, even shrinking the Northeastern lead to three with four-and-a-half minutes remaining, Shaquille Walters and Tyson Walker stole the show for the Huskies.

“He’s our go-to guy, he knows it, our team knows it and our staff knows it,” Coen said of Walker. “At that juncture in the game, he [can] feel the game and make the appropriate play . . . A lot of guys have the ability but don’t have the mindset or the personality for it. He’s got the confidence to do that, and we’re going to rely on him heavily.” 

Walker and Walters combined for 13 points in the last seven minutes of the game, with Walker scoring or assisting on 13 of the Huskies’ final 15 points.

The Huskies’ next games come against the Hofstra Pride, who ended the Huskies’ season last year in the CAA Championship Game. Because the teams are travel partners, it will be the one traditional home-and-home for the Huskies in conference play. Game one begins Thursday night at 7 PM Eastern from Hempstead, NY.

2020–21 CAA Preview: Northeastern Huskies

Last season: 17–16 (9–9, sixth place CAA); lost to Hofstra in CAA Final

Head coach: Bill Coen (15th season)

Preseason Poll Projected Finish: Seventh

Departures — ppg/rpg/apg (fg% / 3fg% / ft%)

  • G Jordan Roland — 22/3/2 (48/39/88)
  • G/F Bolden Brace — 11/7/2 (45/39/82)
  • G/F Max Boursiquot — 9/5/1 (57/36/67)
  • F Tomas Murphy — 9/3 (71/X/X) played only four games

Additions

  • G J’Vonne Hadley
  • G Jahmyl Telfort
  • F Alexander Nwagha
  • F Coleman Stucke
  • F Chris Doherty (sophomore)

By Milton Posner

Last season was a profoundly strange one for the Northeastern Huskies.

After the graduation of All-CAA First Team point guard Vasa Pusica, there were serious questions about where the scoring and offensive leadership would come from. Within two games, Jordan Roland had broken a single-game Northeastern scoring record held by J.J. Barea and Reggie Lewis. That game was a precursor for first-in-the-conference, seventh-in-the-nation scoring season, one powered by volume three-point shooting, stealthy drives, and an arsenal of fearsome floaters deployed with either hand.

For most of conference play, the Huskies’ point differential stood among the best. But because their first five losses came by a combined nine points — and included three game-winning layups —  the Huskies hovered around the middle of the conference. They squeaked into the sixth seed to earn a first-round bye in the CAA Tournament.

And then they beat third-seeded Towson just a week after losing to them in the last regular-season game. And toppled an Elon team that was peaking after upsetting a juggernaut William & Mary squad. And made a dramatic — albeit unsuccessful — run at top-seeded Hofstra in the title game despite Roland’s struggles.

It was hard to know what to expect from the Huskies on any given night, but they were competitive throughout the year and found their groove in time for the conference tournament. Besides the superb, fluid scoring of Roland, they boasted the all-around contributions of Bolden Brace, the electric offense of Tyson Walker, and the suffocating defense of Max Boursiquot.

This season poses even more questions than last season. The loss of leading scorers Roland and Brace to graduation was inevitable. But the transfers hurt. Big man Tomas Murphy, who played just four games last season before injuring his ankle, elected to spend his two remaining years of eligibility at Vermont. Boursiquot entered the transfer portal, but no news has surfaced of him choosing another school, signing a pro contract, or doing anything else. Rising senior Myles Franklin, possibly frustrated at a lack of minutes, bolted for the Division II team at Point Loma Nazarene University.

These departures drain the Huskies’ scoring, and the loss of Boursiquot robs them of a stud who can protect the rim, hold firm on the block, and guard all five positions.

Northeastern is the only CAA squad without a senior or grad student. Every other team has at least two such players, and six teams have four. For the first time in a few years, the Huskies likely won’t have an All-CAA First Team guard running the show.

But if their pieces develop nicely, the Huskies can hang with any CAA team. Head Coach Bill Coen — who is the longest-tenured coach in the conference and sits 10 wins away from the program record — is tasked with making something out of this unproven yet promising team.

It begins with his returners. Sophomore guard Tyson Walker was named to the preseason second team after nearly winning Rookie of the Year last season. He’s an electric dribbler, driver, and finisher, and displayed flashes of elite perimeter shooting last season. But without Jordan Roland to key the offense, Walker’s playmaking will be put to the test.

Shaq Walters showed playmaking promise last year after Walker hurt his shoulder. He protected the rock, made quality reads, and drove the offense in key stretches, albeit in a limited sample size. If he can continue that play, he and Walker can be dual playmaking threats and give the Husky offense a dangerous dimension. But for that to happen, he’ll have to improve his own scoring threat beyond his basic slashing and driving.

Look for Jason Strong to take the next step as well. He’s largely been limited to a spot-up role in his first two years with the team, but has shown flashes of all-around promise and strung together an assortment of quality performances.

Coen has emphasized the positional versatility and length of his newcomers, which include four freshmen and one transfer. All weigh more than 200 pounds and come in between 6’6” and 6’8”. Perhaps the most promising is freshman J’Vonne Hadley, an excellent leaper with a strong first step, handle, and finishing ability in the halfcourt and transition. He’s the sort of athletic wing the Huskies haven’t had since Shawn Occeus went pro.

Alexander Nwagha looks promising as well. At a long-limbed 6’8” and with a quick first-step to the ball, he boasts a sizable catch and influence radius that could make him a viable rim protector. He is a solid leaper for his size, can run in transition, and is mobile enough to function well on the block.

Rounding out the newcomers are Jahmyl Telfort, an aggressive driver with a comfortable-looking pull-up jumper; Coleman Stucke, a knockdown spot-up shooter; and Chris Doherty, a Notre Dame transfer who adds some bulk down low.

Bottom Line: The Huskies have less proven talent than they’ve had the last few seasons, a bad sign in a league often powered by star juniors and seniors. But they also have enough positional versatility, length, and well-roundedness to challenge anyone. If the freshmen can’t contribute, their seventh-place preseason poll finish just might come true. But if they can, the Huskies could find themselves knocking on the door of the CAA’s top tier.