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A big win for Northeastern for a not-so-obvious reason

January 16, 2015 Columns No Comments

BOSTON – It goes without saying that Northeastern’s 91-83 win over Hofstra was a big one just from the fact that with it the Huskies knocked off a fellow contender, as well as the last team in the CAA that had not lost a conference game. But this was bigger than just that, and from it you can see this as the Huskies re-asserting themselves as conference favorites.

The game was your classic contrast of styles, so one could certainly figure that controlling tempo is paramount. The Huskies didn’t exactly do that, but they won anyway. How they did it tells you something about how this team can play, because it’s already a given that they can win grind-it-out games.

“I thought we used pretty good discipline in terms of knowing when to run and be aggressive, and when to hold the ball out and be a little bit more deliberate,” said head coach Bill Coen.

Northeastern played fast – indeed, a lot faster than they would probably like to. But they never got caught up playing at Hofstra’s speed. They ran at times, but they were patient, too. They didn’t try to be too quick getting a shot up, they weren’t hurried with their passing, and they ran on occasion.

Making it all the more impressive is that the Huskies did this without captain Reggie Spencer, who missed the game with a lower body injury. That put the Huskies down a body, and Quincy Ford battled foul trouble for a lot of the night, so this was a real test given the numbers as depth can be important in a fast-paced game. The Huskies pulled it out.

It would be one thing if the Huskies controlled the tempo, made it a slow game and won. There’s something to be said for doing that. But when a team doesn’t do that and still comes out on top, that’s impressive. It’s a little like how the best hitters don’t just hit mistakes or slight misses in location, they also hit “pitcher’s pitches” at times. Northeastern certainly hit a pitcher’s pitch on Wednesday, even if the game was at home. They played so well within the game’s flow that they made one more field goal than Hofstra did, even though the Pride took 28 more shots.

Indicative of how they did it was sophomore point guard T.J. Williams. Of late, few in the CAA have played better than Williams, and on Wednesday he had 16 points on 7-11 shooting, 11 rebounds and six assists. He got them into the offense, led them on run-outs and helped them to a 37-36 rebounding edge. Last year, he had the ups and downs of a freshman, though he played better down the stretch, and the team lost a lot of tough games. This year, he’s playing better and more consistently, and the Huskies are seeing better results as well.

Thanks in part to his play, the Huskies executed Coen’s masterful plan. Mindful that they could get into a track meet and manage, Coen didn’t want that not because the Huskies couldn’t do it, but for game management.

“We talked in our pre-game that we want to be aggressive, yet patient, because we don’t want to lose track of Scott (Eatherton),” said Coen. “Sometimes in a track meet, the big guys get lost. He’s a difference-maker. He had a terrific game tonight and came up with some big baskets for us.”

Indeed, Eatherton quietly had 21 points on 8-11 shooting along with three blocked shots. It was a quiet 21 because he didn’t get them all at once, didn’t lead them in scoring and blended in a bit in part from how fast the game was. He had one big basket right before the halftime buzzer, which tied it up and gave the Huskies momentum. They certainly succeeded in not losing him.

“We can do that, we’ve got guys that can play like that, but I think to use the best of everything that we have, we’ve got to mix and match,” Coen added.

It was a great way to deal with the contrast in styles. Just over a week earlier, UNCW played at a faster pace and beat the Huskies, though that had as much to do with the Huskies’ defense as UNCW drove at them all night long with success. Northeastern’s offense couldn’t keep up with the hole the defense dug them. On Wednesday night, the defense was better, and so was the offense.

The Huskies had the only real sustained run in the game, and that made the difference. The game was played within a nine-point window before the Huskies ran off 11 unanswered points to go from being down 69-68 to leading by ten. They led by at least five the rest of the way.

It’s too early to think about conference tournament seeding or other implications that are well down the road. That there is a three-way tie atop the CAA (Williams & Mary joins Northeastern and Hofstra) is relatively meaningless because more than two-thirds of the conference schedule remains. What matters most is that Northeastern won on Wednesday against one of those two in a contrast of styles where they didn’t control the tempo. They played more towards the other team’s pace, but never got caught up in it to where they got out of character with how they played. That’s even more important than the fact that they did it without a key forward and with a key starter battling foul trouble. That’s also why this game is an early re-assertion of this team as conference favorites, even as we have a lot of basketball left to be played.

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