Having already clinched the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title and top seed for the conference tournament, Northeastern had one more objective in Saturday’s finale against Old Dominion at Matthews Arena.
It was all about sending out senior captains Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith with one last hurrah.
Entering their final home game of their careers, Smith and Lee had combined for 5,967 minutes, 2,382 points, 524 assists, 336 3-pointers, 211 games, 161 starts, 64 wins, and, oh yes, the Huskies’ first CAA championship.
And even though they combined for 45 points, including a season-high 26 by Lee, the Huskies’ second-half rally from a 25-point deficit came up short in an 81-74 loss.
“The 40 minutes today wasn’t our best effort,’’ said coach Bill Coen, whose Huskies are 19-11, 14-4 in the CAA. “But when you look at the totality of our 18-game [conference] schedule, I couldn’t be prouder of these guys.’’
The game was more than just a parting shot for the Monarchs, a founding member of the conference in 1979 who will join Conference USA next season.
A tumultuous season, which cost 12th-year coach Blaine Taylor his job, ended on a good note for Old Dominion, which avenged a 79-74 overtime loss to Northeastern Feb. 9 in Norfolk by getting double-digit scoring from four starters. Richard Ross led ODU (5-25, 3-15) with 17 points and nine rebounds, and helped the Monarchs outrebound the Huskies, 39-32, and outscore them in the paint, 56-32.
“We joked that we wanted to be undefeated in March,’’ said Old Dominion interim coach Jim Corrigan, whose team streaked to a 43-26 halftime lead that quickly grew to 49-29 on Donte Hill’s layup.
“We were like the Bad News Bears,’’ Coen said. “We couldn’t catch the ball, we couldn’t pass the ball, we couldn’t shoot the ball. And sometimes that happens. Sometimes it’s the emotion of Senior Day. Sometimes it’s just a bad game. But we weren’t firing on any cylinders at all.’’
When freshman David Walker hoisted a 3-pointer that missed, Coen pulled all five starters with 18:10 to go.
“That was the point where the game was getting out of hand,’’ said Smith, who finished with 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting. “The people who came in did a great job and picked us up. We sat on the bench, meanwhile, and refocused ourselves and tried to make a run at it.’’
Northeastern’s bench chipped in 21 points, getting 6 apiece from Demetrius Pollard, Marco Banegas-Flores, and Zach Stahl, whose strong layup off a pretty feed from Banegas-Flores cut it to 66-58 with 4:03 to go.
“We tried to set the tempo, but really they set the tempo for us,’’ Lee said of Northeastern’s bench. “When we got back in there, we gave it everything we had.’’
Lee did precisely that, burying a trey and then a transition basket that pulled NU within 78-74 with 17.5 seconds left.
The Huskies pressured the ensuing inbounds play and nearly came up with a turnover when Quincy Ford tipped the pass and Walker saved it from going out of bounds by throwing back in play before tumbling into NU’s bench. But ODU’s Dimitri Batten scrambled for the loose ball and earned a trip to the line when fouled by Smith on a breakaway. Batten made both free throws to give the Monarchs the buffer they needed.
“There’s too much character on this team, too much mental toughness, and there’s too much pride to let the whole game be played out like that on such a special occasion such as Senior Day,’’ Coen said. “I was proud of the effort we put forth. I felt like we put together a furious comeback that just fell a little bit short.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.