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Northeastern 70, College of Charleston 67

Northeastern hangs on, advances to second straight CAA final

Vasa Pusica (right), shown in a November of 2017 game, was the closer for Northeastern Monday night.
Vasa Pusica (right), shown in a November of 2017 game, was the closer for Northeastern Monday night.(Jay LaPrete/AP)

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Northeastern and College of Charleston have met just 14 times in men’s college basketball, but all the trappings of a deep-rooted rivalry are there.

They went to overtime in last season’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship, with the Cougars winning. They split their two regular-season matchups this season, each winning by 9 points on their home floor. Entering Monday night, Charleston held a narrow 7-6 edge head-to-head.

That’s now even as well. Down two points with 3:13 to play, Northeastern held the de facto hosts without a field goal the rest of the way and survived a potentially devastating foul call in the waning seconds, winning, 70-67, to reach another CAA title game.

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The No. 2 seeds will face No. 1 Hofstra, which needed overtime to beat Delaware in the night’s first game, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Vasa Pusica came up with points for the Huskies when they needed them most. His layup with 37 seconds remaining put Northeastern up 66-65. After a missed Charleston layup, he hit two free throws with 17 seconds remaining to extend the lead to 68-65.

On the ensuing possession, Donnell Gresham fouled Charleston’s Marquise Pointer, who was ruled to be in the act of shooting a 3-pointer. With a chance to tie the game at the line with 3 seconds left, Pointer made the first shot, missed the second, then made the third on what appeared an attempt at an intentional miss.

Pointer then fouled Gresham, who made both his shots for the final score.

Pusica finished with 13 points and 7 assists. Anthony Green added 9 points and 6 rebounds.

Shawn Occeus came off the bench in the first half to score 11 points in only 9 minutes, propelling the Huskies to a 35-33 halftime lead. Occeus missed the final nine regular-season games due to injury, returning in Northeastern’s quarterfinal win over UNC Wilmington on Sunday. He finished with 17 points and 4 rebounds.

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“I don’t think people realize how difficult of a year it has been for Shawn,” said head coach Bill Coen. “Playing on a team, you’ve got to part of the group, part of the locker room, and a lot of guys when they get injured separate from the group, from the pack. They are in training rooms, they’re not on road trips, they’re not going to miss class if they can’t play, so you get a little bit detached. I think Shawn did an unbelievable job keeping his focus, staying positive, going and getting his treatment, really attacking it and looking forward to that come back.”

The game was played in front of a mostly maroon-clad audience. Occeus pointed to his team’s experience as a key factor in Northeastern’s ability to not let the noise affect them.

“When it got loud towards the end of the game, we just stuck together,” said Occeus. “Everybody was in the huddles, everybody was communicating together. Coaches were talking to us, we’re listening. Everybody.”

In their January home win, Northeastern held the high-scoring tandem of Jarrell Brantley and Grant Riller to a combined 30 points. That number doubled to 60 in the February rematch, won by Charleston in overtime, but Northeastern limited Brantley and Riller to 18 and 10 points, respectively, on Monday.

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“They are two of the top players in the league,” Coen said. “We were in different positions throughout the year. The first time we played them we had everybody available. The second time we played them I think Vasa was out with the flu for about eight days, got off the plane and played the game, and Shawn wasn’t with us. Tonight I think it was full squad against full squad, and we were able to do some things that we want to do defensively that we weren’t able to do down there.”

This is Northeastern’s fourth trip to the CAA Tournament finals under Coen. The Huskies last danced in 2015, in which they narrowly missed upsetting Notre Dame, while Hofstra’s last visit was in 2001.