BOSTON — In a game that started as a rock fight but eventually opened up offensively, graduate student guard Luka Sakota scored a team-high 18 points to lead Northeastern over Towson 67-59 Saturday afternoon at Matthews Arena.
The win is head coach Bill Coen’s 183rd victory against CAA competition, tying the league record set by current Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga at George Mason from 1997-2011.
Huskies alumni Matt Janning, Jordan Roland, Bolden Brace, and Guilien Smith were in attendance to watch Coen reach the milestone, and they all celebrated the victory in the locker room with their collegiate coach.
“Those guys won the games,” said Coen, referencing the former players in attendance as well as the ones on his coaching staff. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to have great players here, great people, great student-athletes.”
Saturday’s affair started out with points hard to come by — the score was 17-15 Northeastern with five minutes to go in the first half. The Tigers play at the second-slowest tempo in the country, per KenPom (just ahead of Virginia, a team the Huskies faced earlier in the season), and the pace of the game reflected that, with both teams using up much of the shot clock on their offensive possessions. Towson’s excellent offensive rebounding (they’re second in the country in that metric as well) also allows them to slow down the game by extending possessions and getting second-chance opportunities to make up for their not-so-efficient shooting. However, Northeastern did a decent job of limiting those chances, holding Towson to a season-low 21 rebounds on the day.
The Tigers shot just 4-for-17 from the field in the first half, but the Huskies had some offensive struggles of their own, as the passes they tried to force through a clogged-up paint area were disrupted by Towson. Their improved ability to find players cleanly on cuts in the second half was one of the key reasons Northeastern was able to lock up the win.
“First half, [those passes] were available, but our timing was off,” Coen said. “We were a little bit too anxious. You’ve got to give Towson some credit, they’re a very aggressive team, they had great ball pressure … and we just rushed our passes early. I thought, second half, we settled down and completed some of those, and it opened up the game for us.”
Sakota also started to pour it on in the second half, scoring the Huskies’ first three baskets of the frame. The Huskies are now 2-0 in CAA play with Sakota in the lineup, after starting the conference slate 0-2 with the Harvard transfer sidelined due to a hip injury.
“Luka’s such an elite teammate,” Coen said. “He wants to win, he’s extremely competitive and obviously a really good player. … Everybody can borrow some confidence from him, because he plays with such a big presence on the court, and it allows everybody to relax and be themselves.”
However, after Northeastern had held the Tigers to a season-low 17 points in the first half, the visitors’ offense started to come alive as well, with redshirt junior guard Nendah Tarke scoring all 17 of his points in the second frame. The Huskies’ halftime lead of 11 eroded to just one point halfway through the second half, following a Tarke three, but that would be the closest Towson came to getting back in front, after graduate student forward Chris Doherty hit a three of his own.
Doherty had attempted just one three-pointer in his entire college career prior to this year, but he had been working on his outside shot during the offseason and has made six treys this season, the latest coming after an 0-for-5 performance from deep Thursday night against Hofstra.
“If you watch him in practice, you know that there’s a reason why we let him shoot,” Coen said. “He’s worked on it really hard throughout the summer … Throughout the year, he’s been experimenting with it and I hope he gets a bit more courage and lets it go even more.”
The win was a milestone for Doherty as well, who appeared in his 100th collegiate game Saturday. Coen will have two chances to break Larrañaga’s record next week, as the Huskies visit North Carolina A&T and Elon, both sitting at 1-2 in conference play.
The Huskies travel to Greensboro to take on North Carolina A&T Thursday night. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.