Conference championships aren’t supposed to come easily, so Northeastern’s 76-74 overtime loss to Delaware on Wednesday night at Matthews Arena might end up as simply a speed bump on the road to the program’s first Colonial Athletic Association title.
The Huskies (17-9, 12-2), needing a win to clinch at least a share of the CAA regular-season crown, seemed poised to get it in front of their home fans, taking a 5-point lead with 2:02 left in the extra session on a driving layup by Jonathan Lee.
But those would be the last points NU would score. A rushed shot and a turnover opened the door just wide enough for Delaware, which cut the deficit to 74-73 on a dunk by Jamelle Hagins and two free throws from Jarvis Threatt with 1:04 left. Following a travel call against Lee, the Blue Hens got the ball back with 45 seconds left, trailing by 1.
Not for long. Threatt buried a deep 3-pointer with 10.2 seconds left, putting Delaware up, 76-74.
The Huskies called a timeout with 4.0 seconds left, and ran a play designed to get the ball to Lee, who scored a game-high 23 points. It was knocked out of bounds with 0.5 seconds left, and Lee’s eventual heave from 30 feet was well off the mark, and may have come after the buzzer.
Not that it mattered. Delaware (14-12, 9-4), which lost to NU at home Jan. 19, spoiled the Huskies’ party, and drew within 2½ games of first place with 2½ weeks left in the regular season.
“I thought we had the game won on a couple of occasions. We really mismanaged a couple of possessions late in the game,” NU coach Bill Coen said. “Give Delaware credit: They made a big, big shot to win the game.”
It would have been an impressive win for NU because the Huskies played shorthanded. Senior captain Joel Smith, twice the CAA player of the week and a strong candidate for conference player of the year, missed with an ankle injury, and his absence was felt.
Smith injured his ankle late in Monday’s win at William & Mary, and brought a team-leading 17.0 points per game to the NU bench, where he watched with his uniform on. He didn’t participate in warmups — briefly riding a stationary bike during a second-half timeout, and asking Coen a few times if he could go in — but never saw the court during the game, ending two notable streaks. Smith had made 71 straight starts, and had appeared in 92 consecutive games.
“We’re not going to use that as an excuse,” Coen said. “It was an opportunity for someone else to step up.”
What a game Smith missed. There were 12 ties and six lead changes in the second half alone. Neither team led by more than 3 points for the final 17:40 of regulation, and both had a chance to win at the end of the second half. The Huskies had the better opportunity, coming out of a timeout with 13.1 seconds left and the score tied at 67. But Lee had the ball stripped on a drive to the basket, the ball winding up in Devon Saddler’s hands. His 70-foot heave at the buzzer nearly went in, hitting the front of the rim.
The Huskies went more than seven minutes of the second half without a field goal, but were outscored by only 4 points during the stretch, making all 11 of their free throws during that span. NU (second in the CAA in free-throw shooting) stayed in it by going 17-for-20 from the line. Delaware, which leads the conference at 76 percent, made just 15 of 24.
Threatt led Delaware with 20 points, one of three Blue Hens in double figures. NU had two, with Quincy Ford adding 21.
It was a game Delaware had to have if it wanted any chance at winning the regular-season CAA title. NU still controls its fate, but there’s more meaningful games to play.
“We didn’t panic when we got down 5 in overtime,” Delaware coach Monte Ross said. “We got stops on the defensive end, and we took good shots on the offensive end. That was the difference.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.