WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the second year in a row Northeastern found themselves in overtime in their opening game of the CAA tournament.
After knocking off the William & Mary Tribe in overtime in last year’s tournament, the Huskies fell short in this season’s postseason opener.
Following 45 minutes of grueling play, Northeastern watched a Jahmyl Telfort three bounce off the rim and looked up to see 77 for the Blue Hens and 74 for the Huskies.
The Huskies entered tournament play as one of the bottom three seeds in the CAA for the second year in a row. Their six conference wins allowed them to narrowly avoid the 12-13 play-in game and set them up as the No. 11 seed facing the No. 6 Blue Hens.
The two regular season matchups promised a tournament thriller between the two programs. The first was a one-point victory for Northeastern at home and the other was a three-point win for Delaware in Newark.
The main difference between those two matchups was Blue Hen star Jameer Nelson Jr. who missed the first but played in the second, scoring 21 points.
Nelson Jr., the son of former NBA all-star Jameer Nelson, was a first team All-CAA selection this season for Delaware and showed why early on in Saturday night’s bout.
Just over three minutes into the game, Nelson Jr. had eight points on three shots to give his squad the early four-point lead.
The Huskies though, primed with a revamped offensive game plan, matched Nelson Jr. as a collective.
For the most of the season Northeastern was slow, predictable and frankly not all that interesting of a team in the half court. Three or four perimeter players would take turns lofting the ball around the arc, at times giving the ball to Chris Doherty at the high post to facilitate the offense while mostly just waiting for a teammate to jack up a jumper.
March seemed to activate another gear for this offense as the team attacked, attacked, and attacked, with each player barreling towards the rim for layups.
The Huskies took advantage of their superior strength and athleticism, not just in the transition game, pushing after defensive rebounds but also in the halfcourt. The offense with a flurry of cuts and jabs and swirling layups looked like an entirely new squad than the one that had limped into the playoffs.
The problem for Northeastern was that no matter how many layups they made — 15 in the first half — they couldn’t pull away from a Delaware team that was bombing away. At the break the Blue Hens were six for 11 from beyond the arc and held a 38-37 lead.
Nelson Jr. had 15 points himself while eight different players added points for the Huskies.
In the second half the game turned into a filthy, sludge of a contest with each team racking up 14 total fouls over the final 20 minutes. In the first they combined for just nine. As the fouls stacked and the minutes at the charity stripe ballooned, the game slowed to a crawl. Both teams as well began to struggle in with their half-court offenses, going just 17 of 48 from the field in the second half combined.
From the foul line however, the two programs were putting on a clinic. In the second frame Northeastern and Delaware went a combined 33-41 from the line.
The foul shots were dispersed among the Blue Hens rather evenly but for the Huskies there was one player who distinguished himself at the line.
After finishing the first half with just four points on four shots, Telfort let loose in the second. The junior scored 16 points in the second, 10 of which came at the line.
When the Huskies found themselves down three points with eight seconds to go in the game, it was Telfort’s free throw heroics that saved the game.
After hitting two free throws themselves, the Blue Hens and head coach Martin Ingelsby made the decision to go for the foul while up three. The issue was that Ebby Asamoah who committed the foul on Telfort came in too late and made the illegal contact while Telfort was in the process of the shot.
Needing to hit all three free throws, Telfort delivered and after the game he talked about what head coach Bill Coen said to him prior to the possession.
“Coach told me that they were probably going to foul up three,” Telfort said. “I just wanted to get close to the three point line and as soon as I saw him get close to me, I had to get it up and just hope for a foul, and we got it.”
Those foul shots, though, were likely the last points of his Northeastern career.
In overtime the Huskies mustered just two points to the Blue Hens’ five and Telfort’s potential game-tying three missed, ending Northeastern’s season.
At the postgame press conference, Coen delivered an extensive answer about how it feels when the season comes to an end and what Telfort has meant to the Northeastern program over the past three years.
While there is no confirmation that the junior guard will elect to transfer to another program after the season, it appeared as if Coen was saying goodbye to a player he had grown immensely close with since he first saw him in high school.
“I think whenever the season comes to an end, it’s a little bit of a jolt,” Coen said. “Every day you’re trying to create the best practice, there’s always a game coming up, there’s always something to look forward to. And then at the end, it’s like you’re running on a treadmill, full speed, and somebody hits the emergency stop button. … It’ll take some time to reflect on the season. I thought we had moments; it’s a young team that got a lot of experience.”
Telfort’s impact extended far beyond Northeastern’s games, he also showed many of his younger teammates what it means to be a leader and what it means to play basketball for the Huskies.
“I can’t say enough about this man’s leadership, day in and day out,” Coen said. “By far our hardest worker; he’s in the gym constantly. He is all about his dream and his vision. He’s a mentor to the younger guys. He’s obviously an extremely talented player. But more importantly, he’s an elite teammate and a great human being. When you have somebody like that in your program, and you get to go to practice with them each and every day. … And he never wavers, he’s the same way each and every day. Answers the bell and doesn’t doesn’t want to come out of the game because he wants to guard the best player. To me, that makes for a successful season. Just going to practice with him as a joy, competing with him night in and night out against the talented teams and coaches in this league is what it’s all about.”
The future is now wide open once again for these Huskies. If Telfort stays he’ll be without Chris Doherty and Coleman Stucke, two of his best running mates over the past three years, and he’ll be tasked to once again lead a young team scattered with talent through a gauntlet of conference opponents.
If Telfort leaves, then Northeastern will play next year without their three top scorers from this season and will rely even more on players like Joe Pridgen and soon to be sophomores Jared Turner and Rashad King.
For now though, all the Huskies are able to do is fly back home to Boston and just watch from afar, as one of their conference opponents earns the chance to play deeper into March.