BOSTON — Playing the Towson Tigers is like fighting an actual tiger. They’re fierce, they’re territorial, and the longer you’re locked in with them the more fatigued you get.
So if you’re the Northeastern Huskies, and you have an extra day to prep for a Sunday showdown with Pat Skerry’s squad, you know exactly what kind of foe lies in wait. Any hope of topping them depends on mustering enough rebounding and physical play to beat a team that, per their account of their Thursday win over first-place Hofstra, “cleaned the glass better than Windex.”
But despite an even rebounding battle, Jordan Roland’s usual scoring heroics, and a scintillating show from a stand-in point guard, the Huskies fell just short, falling to Towson, 75–72, in their last regular-season game.
The Huskies’ prize? Another bout with Towson. While Northeastern (15–15, 9–9 CAA) would have finished sixth regardless of Sunday’s result, the Husky loss ensured that Towson (19–12, 12–6 CAA) finished third, setting up a rematch this coming Sunday at 8:30 PM EST in the CAA quarterfinal. WRBB will have live coverage of that game from the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington D.C., with Michael Petillo, Matt Neiser, and Milton Posner on the call.
“We’re going to be more familiar,” Roland remarked on the impending rematch. “We’ve got a whole week to scheme for them.”
While Sunday’s game was by no means critical for either club since both had already clinched first-round byes, it is perhaps more instructive as a preview of their win-or-go-home quarterfinal matchup next week. While the Huskies’ persistent defensive pressure did silence the Tigers, 61–45, in the teams’ first meeting in December, both teams have evolved plenty since then.
So what does Sunday’s game tell us?
First, and most importantly, the Huskies need to improve their defense and inside play. The problem is not rebounding, as the Huskies hung with the self-proclaimed “glass act” all game and even doubled up the Tigers in second-chance points.
The problem is one of fouls. The fouling pattern closely mirrored that of the Huskies’ dogfight with Drexel last Saturday, in which neither team entered the bonus in the first half, but both teams found the double bonus in the second as the game grew more physical. But this time Northeastern was on the wrong end, putting Towson in the double bonus with more than six minutes to play.
The foul disparity did two things. First, it gave Towson — the CAA’s best free-throw-shooting team in conference play at 81 percent — 23 tries from the charity stripe. They converted 18 of those tries, earning nine more points at the line than Northeastern.
But just as essential was its effect on Northeastern’s rotation. While no Towson player accumulated more than three fouls, multiple Huskies did. Chief among them was Max Boursiquot, who fouled out after jostling nonstop with Towson’s towering frontcourt. Northeastern had lost its defensive stopper.
“When you’re in foul trouble you tend to be a little more tentative on the defensive end, a little bit softer,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen observed. “The next time we play, the emphasis will be on playing defense without fouling. We’ve got to make sure we keep them off the line.”
On a much brighter note for the Huskies: Shaquille Walters. When Tyson Walker injured his left shoulder last week against Drexel, it wasn’t immediately apparent who would fill his shoes. Roland’s ballhandling and driving prowess would suggest him, but he already dominates the ball with Walker in the lineup, and giving him more touches could take other players out of the offense and allow the defense to gear up on Roland. Myles Franklin usually runs point when he plays, but can’t punish defenses the way the Husky starting guards can. Guilien Smith drives occasionally, but hasn’t proved that he can run point for the Huskies.
And so Walters, the lanky 6’6” junior forward, took the wheel. Though his 15-point, six-assist showing on Thursday was excellent, it was difficult to know how much stock to put in it given that it came against James Madison’s league-worst defense.
But against one of the best defensive teams in the conference, the newly minted point guard didn’t blink. He posted 12 points, four rebounds, and a career-high nine assists courtesy of outstanding passing patience, discipline, awareness, and accuracy. He has 15 assists in his two games running the offense and has turned the ball over just twice.
“Adversity hits everybody . . . injuries happen. Some people just have a way of responding to that, and I think he’s responded in a big, big way,” Coen said. “His effort this afternoon was just terrific. He’s playing a little bit out of position [but] really controlled the game. [He had a] little bit of foul trouble — my staff was telling me to take him out, but I had to leave him in, he was just playing too well.”
Walters’ steadying presence will likely serve the Huskies well next week — especially if Walker, who Coen described as day-to-day, is unavailable — but neither his offensive contributions, nor Jordan Roland’s 25 points, nor the 14 apiece that Brace and Boursiquot contributed, could account for Towson’s strengths.
There was Brian Fobbs, who rebounded from an invisible performance against the Huskies in December to drop 18 points. There was freshman guard Jason Gibson, who notched 18 points of his own on just eight shots as the Huskies consistently left him alone from behind the arc. There was Dennis Tunstall, who obliterated several Husky shots in the paint. There was Charles Thompson, who threw down two one-handed dunks to swing the momentum Towson’s way in the first half, then took a charge on Roland and screamed with such intensity that his neck veins were visible from the media center.
The upshot was Northeastern’s sixth one-possession conference loss, and their eighth by five points or fewer.
The game was also the final home game for seniors Jordan Roland, Bolden Brace, and Guilien Smith, all of whom were honored at midcourt before the game. Smith, who transferred from Dartmouth for his final season, professed appreciation for the group’s quick acceptance of him at a time when he didn’t know many people. Brace and Roland identified last year’s CAA Championship as a favorite moment.
“I was sitting out the year that they lost to Charleston in the CAA final,” Roland said. “Being able to come back after a hard loss and contribute to that was really special for me.”
“I was very, very fortunate that they, at one time, took a chance on this program,” Coen said. “Their families trusted us to give them the experience not only of playing basketball, but trying to become better men, good people, and good students.”
Coen was also optimistic that the week between now and the rematch with Towson — which coincides with Northeastern’s spring break — will benefit his squad.
“It allows you to invest a little bit more time in your rehab, your rest, your recovery, fine tuning, individual meetings along with practice. Nobody’s under the dual obligation of being a student and an athlete. Now you can be more athlete than student.
“It’s a long week; it’s an exciting week. It’s a complete restart for every team in the league. Whether you finish first or last, everybody has a chance.”