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    Northeastern basketball proved a point this season

    Northeastern's Vasa Pusica, right, drives to the basket as Ohio State's C.J. Jackson defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
    jay laprete/AP file
    “Our team grew as the season was going,” said guard Vasa Pusica.

    The blowout loss to Towson that brought Northeastern’s season to a screeching halt in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last year was a gut punch that stuck with the Huskies all offseason.

    And when they saw the preseason conference poll as they got ready to regroup last fall, the Huskies took it as a slap in the face.

    It wasn’t necessarily that Charleston sat atop the poll, hogging all but two of the 40 first-place votes. It wasn’t even that Towson — a team that still makes the Huskies see red — was No. 2 with the other first-place nods.

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    It was that the prognosticators had the Huskies finishing sixth — again.

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    It meant that no one saw the Huskies being any better than they were last season when they went 15-16 overall and 8-10 in the conference.

    But after putting together a scorching end to this season with seven straight wins that earned them a share of the CAA title, it’s clear to the Huskies the preseason poll was the start of the shoulder-chip that’s carried them through a season no one but them saw coming.

    “We didn’t like the way we went out in the CAA tournament,” said sophomore guard Shawn Occeus. “So that was a chip on everyone’s shoulder to come out to this year that we’re not a sixth seed and we’re not a team that’s going to be playing in the bottom four on a Friday or Saturday or whatever it was. We wanted to prove to this league that we’re a threat and I think we’re doing that.

    “I think it was good for us. We obviously don’t want to be picked sixth in the league, but I think it was good for us because that gave us more motivation that we already had before coming off that loss to Towson.

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    “So seeing that we’re picked to be the sixth-best team in the league is something that we took personally and each and every day we worked to prove people wrong.”

    After a 14-4 finish in league play, the Huskies are seeded second and will open conference tournament play in the quarterfinals Sunday against the Elon/Delaware winner.

    This is Northeastern’s third regular-season championship since joining the Colonial in 2005 (all in the past six years).

    In 2012-13, the Huskies were picked to finish fifth, went 19-11 in the regular season (14-4 in the conference) and won the title outright. In 2014-15, Northeastern was picked as the favorite, went 20-11, (12-6) in the regular season and split the title four ways. The Huskies went on to win three more games to claim the CAA tournament crown, but lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

    This season, a 21-9 regular season marked the most wins by a Northeastern team since 1986-87.

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    If there’s a unique quality about this team, coach Bill Coen said, it’s the way it handled expectations.

    “We’ve had some teams that were picked first or second going into the league and you kind of fight through those things and it’s a different type of navigating of the season,” Coen said. “This team, I think there was a common theme: We weren’t picked.

    “I don’t think there was anybody on our team that was picked as a preseason all-conference player. So it’s a little easier to get their attention when it’s like that. I think guys come in with a little bit of edge and want to prove they’re worthy.”

    A four-game losing streak in November at the PK80 Invitational was pivotal, according to transfer guard Vasa Pusica said. Against power conference staples such as Ohio State and Stanford, the Huskies took their lumps, but it tested their mettle.

    “I think we came out as a better team,” said Pusica. “We took that as a lesson. Our team grew as the season was going. It was a new team, new roles, nobody played with each other, really, before. I think as we were figuring it out, we were getting better.”

    The four straight wins immediately after that weren’t coincidental.

    “We feel like we had to make a run,” said the team’s lone senior, Devon Begley. “We believed we were a good team and we needed to show it.”

    When Coen tinkered with the starting lineup early in the year, players embraced their new roles no matter where they landed in the reshuffling.

    “People didn’t pout,” Coen said. “People didn’t turn and give in, they dug in, and it resulted in us getting better throughout the year.”

    It got to the point that the hot streak they ultimately went on wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that they could see each other jelling.

    Now that they’re at a point where it’s win or go home, the stakes may be higher, but the approach is the same.

    “Honestly, I don’t even know how many games it’s been,” Occeus said. “I just know we’ve been winning. You don’t really get caught up in how many games you won in a row. It’s just every game, we focused on that one game. We’re just staying in the moment every time we go out there and play.”