Thursday night’s ending was a test of just how much déjà vu the college basketball gods can cram into one play.
Just like Saturday, Northeastern faced a top-tier CAA opponent at Matthews Arena. Once again, the Huskies overcame first-half struggles, closed the deficit with hot second-half shooting, and tied the score in the game’s waning minutes with a clutch three.
But, unbelievably, and again, their opponent’s elite senior scorer caught a pass above the arc, drove left, and hit an athletic lefty layup with tenths of a second left on the clock, leaving Northeastern to miss a halfcourt heave as the buzzer sounded.
The only difference: tonight’s victor was Hofstra, not William & Mary. The final assassin was Eli Pemberton, not Nathan Knight. But the result was the same: a two-point loss to a top-notch CAA foe in a game Northeastern arguably should have won. It was like finding out your friend has an identical twin they never mentioned.
The Huskies fell to the Pride, 74–72, losing their second straight game and dropping to 9–8 (3–2 CAA) and fourth place in the CAA. Hofstra (13–5, 4–1 CAA) is third.
After the 66–64 loss to William & Mary on Saturday, the Huskies were left wondering if a few things going right — namely Roland shooting better — would have yielded a victory. Tonight’s first-half culprit was . . . well, how much time do you have?
It began with turnovers. Northeastern surrendered the ball 11 times in the first half, seven of which were Hofstra steals. Forfeiting possession that many times will always hurt your prospects, but the harm is amplified when so many of the giveaways are live-ball turnovers. Though Hofstra didn’t eviscerate the Huskies on points off turnovers or the fastbreak, the Pride benefitted from the extra possessions, took more shots than Northeastern, and retained their momentum for most of the first half.
Northeastern also repeatedly missed uncontested layups. Besides the obvious loss of two points, each miss ended with the shooter underneath the Husky basket, allowing Hofstra to push the ball in transition and attack Northeastern’s defense before it was set.
Northeastern struggled in navigating Hofstra’s matchup zone, a defense that combines zone and man principles, prioritizes switching, and employs quick perimeter defenders. The Pride pressured Husky guards along both sidelines, and the Huskies struggled to circumvent the traps with quick passes. Even when the passes found their targets, their lack of accuracy and zip meant that Northeastern couldn’t make Hofstra pay for doubling.
“Their matchup zone is not the typical zone; it’s not like you run your zone offense and you get [shots],” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen explained. “You have to be able to move, manipulate the defense to be able to create some openings, and understand their slides and their movements. It gets you guarding yourself a little bit and you get timid.”
Coen also remarked that his team’s “ball screen coverage was very soft,” which allowed Hofstra to invade the lane and grab rebounds. The Pride also took advantage by screening to spring shooters loose on out-of-bounds plays, which netted several baskets.
Roland followed up his poor showing Saturday — seven points on woeful three-for-14 shooting — with just three points on five shots in the first half.
“I think I’m just gonna have to play better for us to be able to win games,” Roland said, one of several similar comments he made after the game. “If I played [well] for 40 minutes I feel like we win today.”
It was shocking to see Roland be so hard on himself. True, he was absent in the first half save for one made three, one of many reasons why the Huskies trailed by 16 at the break. But his second half was a fireworks display. Roland posted 25 second-half points, splashing home seven of his nine threes to key the Northeastern comeback. His final stat line — 28 points on 17 shots — was patently ridiculous, and his final three tied the game with 21 seconds left.
There’s no disputing that Roland’s play in the last six weeks has been inconsistent from game to game, and even within games. But when knocks down a few shots, when he finds his rhythm and finds his range, he has a gear most college players can’t reach with a stepladder. It almost doesn’t matter how far he is from the basket or how close the defender is to him; he will rain down three-point fire from above and make opposing guards look foolish for trying to defend him.
The other key Husky performer was Bolden Brace, whose 18-point, 10-rebound effort was easily one of his best games all year. In the first half, he became the 39th player in Northeastern history — and the second player this season — to reach the 1,000-point plateau. He was the only Husky who played well throughout the first half, repeatedly sliding into open space, making intelligent passes, and using his gravity to bend the Hofstra zone.
Tyson Walker, fresh off his second straight and fourth overall CAA Rookie of the Year win, scored 10 points but made just five of his 15 shots. He did notch a couple of gorgeous layups, though, showing impressive driving strength and body control for a six-foot, 162-pound player.
For Hofstra, it was Pemberton and Desure Buie, both senior guards, who led the way. The pair finished with similar stat lines — 20+ points, efficient shooting inside and out, and four rebounds — but Pemberton, courtesy of his game-winner, walked away the center of attention. He made the most of his time on national television, chatting with a CBS reporter as the Huskies trudged off the court. Isaac Kante also made his mark, logging 15 points, making all seven of his shots, and snagging 12 rebounds.
Buie’s efficiency has been remarkable this season, trailing only Roland in shooting efficiency among CAA guards. He has been on fire in conference play, and entered Thursday’s game fresh off a 44-point explosion against Elon. His performance was expected. Pemberton’s was much more in doubt, as his efficiency has been relatively low and his scoring inconsistent. But he showed the Huskies why preseason expectations pegged him as the best player on the conference’s best team.
“He just made a really, really athletic play to his left hand off the glass,” Coen said. “We had a little bit of a sloppy closeout, he’s a terrific athlete, and he’s been a very good player in this league for a long, long time.”
It’s hard to know where the Huskies stand after five conference games. They won their first three conference games by 16, 16, and nine points, then lost the next two on game-winners. They’ve seen stellar performances and season-lows from Roland. They’ve protected the ball brilliantly — just five turnovers against William & Mary — and tossed it around carelessly, committing 11 first-half turnovers tonight. They were outrebounded cleanly by bottom-dwelling Elon, then held their own down low against William & Mary’s twin tower lineup of Knight and Andy Van Vliet.
Sometimes they’ve looked like a first-place team.
And sometimes they’ve been overpowered.
“We got two losses in this league by a total of four points,” Coen lamented. “It’s not where we want to be, but we know we’re not that far away.
“What I do like about both these losses is the character of this team. We got down in both games, came back, and narrowly missed salvaging both games. It’s in these guys, they know it. The standard in this program has been pretty high, it’s a championship-level standard, and their efforts and expectations are the same.
“It’s all about where the teachable moments are . . . and getting to the point where these guys can learn from it and get better. I know the desire is there.”
After Thursday’s games, there are three teams ahead of Northeastern in the conference standings. They just lost to two of them in heartbreaking fashion, making next Thursday’s game against the undefeated Charleston Cougars all the more essential.
Losing will lower their overall and conference records to .500, likely move them to the middle of the standings, and cast serious doubts on the team’s ability to repeat as CAA champions. A win would prove their talent, their execution, and their resilience after a pair of tough losses.
Michael Petillo and Matt Neiser will call that game, with coverage beginning at 6:45 PM EST.