by Matthew MacCormack
In a lot of ways, the final game of Northeastern’s season mirrored the 2015-16 campaign as a whole.
Exactly one month ago, the Huskies were 12-13. The defending CAA champions were sitting at a paltry 8th in the conference, and the season looked lost.
Then Northeastern won five of its next six games, starting with a gritty 47-44 victory at Towson, and earned a bye in the CAA Tournament. And while Sunday afternoon’s 73-70 heartbreaker to UNCW in the conference semi-finals cut short any hopes of a CAA repeat, one can still appreciate the drastic mid-season turnaround.
The Huskies proved their resiliency again on Sunday. Despite trailing by 10 points with 1:14 remaining, NU clawed back to cut the Seahawk lead to one with 14 seconds to go, but the comeback effort fell short.
“We put ourselves in a hole in the second half. I thought we got kind of stifled a little bit on offense and UNCW really kind of turned it on and got some easy baskets and separated themselves from us,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said post-game. “But I was very proud of our guys. They didn’t give up, they battled right to the end and we came within a couple seconds of really making it interesting.”
After a Husky steal, redshirt senior Quincy Ford tipped in his own miss to make it 70-69. UNCW sophomore guard Denzel Ingram was fouled on the ensuing inbounds, and pushed the lead to 72-69 with two free throws. 10 seconds remained.
NU couldn’t find an open three on the next trip down, and Ford was fouled on his way to the basket. Ford knocked down his first free throw to cut the lead to two, but was called for a lane violation after intentionally missing his second attempt.
“We had something drawn up where we had a couple three-point options, and they weren’t available,” Coen said. “Obviously we would’ve like to get a clean look at a three but short of that, we didn’t have any timeouts left and getting fouled and getting to the line was about as good as we could do at that point.”
The Huskies once again fouled on the inbounds. Seahawk junior Chris Flemmings missed his first free throw but sunk the second, giving NU one final chance, down 73-70 with 1.4 seconds to play. Senior forward Zach Stahl heaved a full-court baseball pass, and Flemmings swatted the pass out of bounds.
Fans at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore held their breath as the officials reviewed the final play to see if any time remained after Flemmings’ touch. After a lengthy review, the men in stripes confirmed that time had expired, and the Seahawks squeaked by to a CAA Final matchup with Hofstra.
Ford led the Huskies with 21 points on five of 15 shooting, and eight of 10 from the charity stripe. Fellow senior David Walker chipped in 16.
Flemmings’ 21 points paced the Seahawks. Ingram added 14 points and a game-high eight assists.
The first half featured six ties and nine changes. T.J. Williams was the Huskies’ best offensive threat in the opening frame, as the junior guard consistently drove the lane and created contact. Williams hit six of seven free throws and scored 10 of his 16 points in the first half.
Back-to-back threes from senior guard Caleb Donnelly and Walker gave NU it’s largest lead, 32-28, with 3:06 to go in the half. The Seahawks responded with a 6-0 run to end the frame, highlighted by a tip-in and interior layup from freshman forward Devontae Cacok, to make it 34-32 at the half.
The Seahawks seized control of the game in the second half.
Stahl (11 pts, 13 rebs) knocked down two free throws to help NU regain a 40-39 lead with 16:31 to play. From there, UNCW mounted a 16-2 run, capped by a layup from forward Marcus Bryan at the 10:24 mark.
Flemmings hit a pair of threes during that stretch, and it seemed the Seahawks couldn’t miss. NU, meanwhile, missed all four of their shots and turned the ball over four times during the six-minute run, which left the score at 55-42.
Seahawk guard C.J Bryce helped the Seahawks take their largest lead of the game, 14 points, with a jumper a minute later.
The Huskies chipped away at the lead with little success, and Flemmings hit two free throws to make it 69-59 with 1:14 remaining.
Then, suddenly, as they did with their season, the Huskies flipped the script.
Walker scored four straight with a pair of free throws and a jumper, sandwiched in between a missed free throw by Craig Ponder.
The Huskies then stole an inbounds pass, which led to a Williams layup. Just like that, it was 69-65.
NU fouled Jordon Talley, who hit his first free throw but missed the back end.
Ford aggressively drove to the bucket on the next trip down, and was fouled on his way there. The senior calmly knocked down two freebies.
Up by three, UNCW frantically tried to inbound. The pass went to Ingram, but Stahl ripped the ball away. Ford missed an initial layup attempt, but tipped-in his miss, making it 70-69.
The game would get no closer.
“We just told each other; this is it. The last five minutes, the last three minutes, we needed stops and rebounds,” Ford said. “Unfortunately we were one or two possessions away.”
Ford and Walker walked off the court as two of the best players in program history. Walker’s 1,631 career points rank eighth in program history, and Ford is one spot behind with a career tally of 1,617.
Stahl and Donnelly also enjoyed stellar careers. Stahl reached the 1,000 point milestone late in the season, and Donnelly rose from a star on the club basketball team to play big minutes for a Division 1 basketball club.
The senior quartet helped lead NU to its first NCAA tournament in 24 years a season ago.
Next year, the Huskies will look to Williams and freshman center Jeremy Miller as centerpieces. Juniors Kwesi Abakah and Jimmy Marshall and sophomore Devon Begley may have the opportunity to start next season.
A strong freshman class that included Miller, forwards Anthony Green and Sajon Ford (Quincy’s younger brother) and guards Donnell Gresham Jr. and Brandon Kamga should have the chance to step up.
Walker, who owns the program record for minutes played, had some advice for the returning players.
“Work hard this offseason,” said the senior guard. “That’s where champions are made.”