RICHMOND — Perhaps it was asking a bit much to expect the Northeastern men’s basketball team to reprise — for the second game in a row, no less — the biggest comeback in the program’s 93-year history.
But that was the situation the top-seeded Huskies, who rallied from a 24-point first-half deficit in Sunday’s stirring semifinal triumph over George Mason, found themselves in when they whittled a 22-point first-half deficit to 8 in the second half of Monday night’s 70-57 loss to third-seeded James Madison in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship.
“Our locker room is extremely disappointed,’’ said NU coach Bill Coen, whose team was denied its first-ever CAA title and first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991.
“I felt like we let an opportunity slip away,’’ said Coen, whose Huskies won the CAA regular-season title. “But I just thought James Madison played a terrific basketball game today, and we got beat by a better club.’’
When Joel Smith hit a game-opening 3-pointer, the Huskies appeared to get off to a better start than their 69-67 semifinal victory in which NU (20-12) missed its first nine shots and spotted George Mason a 13-0 lead that twice grew to as many as 24 points.
“When Joel hit the first shot of the evening, I thought we were going to have a little different result than [Sunday],’’ Coen said. “Obviously, you look up and it’s a little déjà vu all over again.’’
Reggie Spencer followed with a layup that gave NU a 5-3 lead, but the Dukes, who got a game-high 26 points from A.J. Davis, the tourney’s most outstanding player, went on a 23-1 run to build a whopping 20-point lead, 26-6, on a putback by Devon Moore (9 points) with 7:06 to go.
“We got rushed into it a little bit,’’ Coen said of the Dukes’ up-tempo attack. “But you have to credit James Madison’s defense. They have a switching defensive scheme, which takes a lot of teams out of their rhythm. We couldn’t get any clean looks and we couldn’t get our offensive tempo going.’’
After converting two out of its first three shots, NU missed its next 13 and committed six of its 13 turnovers during that stretch before Marco Banegas-Flores, who had 10 points to lead NU’s bench (23 points), scored on a driving layup that made it 28-10 with 5:29 to go.
When Davis stroked a 3-pointer to give the Dukes a 22-point lead, 35-13, with 2:22 left, it was evident the Huskies were going to have to fashion another miraculous comeback, especially after they trailed, 40-18, at halftime.
“I think it might be the best 10 minutes, the best 20, we’ve played since I’ve been here,’’ said fifth-year James Madison coach Matt Brady, whose team rebounded from a 1-5 start that included a season-opening 30-point loss to UCLA to snip the nets at the end of the CAA tourney, which was being hosted at Richmond Coliseum for the last time.
“The tempo was really where we wanted it,’’ Brady said. “If they controlled the tempo, they’d control the whole game and we’d have to defend all five spots. So we really came in with the mind-set that we were going to attack them.’’
But when the Huskies opened the second half with a 25-11 run that cut their deficit to 51-43 on Derrico Peck’s strong putback with 8:23 to go, it appeared NU might pull off another spectacular comeback.
“The game they had Sunday, that was no fluke,’’ Brady said. “If we didn’t make plays, they were going to do the same thing to us and I said that to our team.’’
Senior cocaptain Jonathan Lee helped fuel the Huskies’ surge, scoring all of his team-high 14 points over the final 20 minutes.
After the Huskies scored 14 points off 16 turnovers (10 steals), JMU (20-14) stemmed the tide when Andre Nation hoisted a 3-pointer from the corner that resulted in a questionable fifth personal foul on Smith (6 points) with 7:46 to go. Nation hit all three foul shots to trigger a 7-1 spurt he highlighted with a rim-rocking dunk that caused the partisan JMU crowd to erupt.
It left the Huskies, who are assured of at least a spot in the NIT, to retreat to Boston lamenting another disappointing result in the CAA tournament.
“I was proud of our effort and I thought our guys battled to the end,’’ Coen said. “I thought we were put in difficult positions, but it really showed the heart of this team and the resiliency of this team. We’re disappointed tonight, but we know there’s more basketball left in the season.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.