Cougars have much at stake against Northeastern

Payton Hulsey drives to the basket in the College of Charleston’s 68-61 overtime victory against Northeastern on Jan. 28 at TD Arena. (Michael Wiser)

The CAA basketball tournament might be another week away, but College of Charleston is already in postseason mode.

The Cougars travel north this week to take on Northeastern on Thursday and Hofstra on Saturday needing victories to avoid the “play-in game” at next week’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Baltimore.

The top six teams in the CAA standings each receive a first-round bye. The bottom four teams are matched up in “play-in games” on March 4.

College of Charleston (16-11, 8-8) holds a one-game lead over Northeastern (15-14, 7-9) for sixth place and has already beaten the Huskies, 68-61, in overtime on Jan. 28 at TD Arena. A win over the Huskies Thursday would clinch no worse than a sixth-place finish for the Cougars. A loss to Northeastern would give the Huskies the tie-breaker over the Cougars headed into Saturday’s regular-season finale. Northeastern faces Drexel, which is currently tied for last place in the CAA with just two conference wins.

The first tie-breaker for the tournament is head-to-head results and the second is how the deadlocked teams fared against the league’s top-seeded team. The Cougars were swept by UNC Wilmington, which currently has a one-game lead on Hofstra for the No. 1 seed. Northeastern split its two games with UNCW.

College of Charleston head coach Earl Grant normally doesn’t pay much attention to records and standings, but at this point in the season, he admitted he has no choice.

“It’s a huge game,” Grant said. “It’s a good thing it’s a huge game because it means we’re playing for something. You want to avoid playing that extra game in a tournament setting. Not having to play in that extra game can be the difference in winning a tournament or going home early. We’ve got two games left, so at this point in the season it’s hard to ignore the standings and ignore where we might end up seeded for the tournament.”

In the first matchup between the two teams, Northeastern held a 20-point advantage early in the second half. The Cougars outscored the Huskies, 28-8, over the final 14 minutes of regulation to send the game into overtime.

“We got down early and were down by 20 in the second half, but didn’t panic and were able to put some stops together,” Grant said. “I think that game showed the grit and perseverance and character that this team has. They never quit, just kept battling, made some plays and figured out a way to get the win.”

Grant said the Cougars’ 59-55 overtime loss to UNC Wilmington this past Saturday night was as good a defensive performance as he’s seen in the decade he’s been a college coach.

“It’s important for us to be playing our best basketball this time of year,” Grant said. “We want to start peaking now. I told the guys after the Wilmington game that in all my years of coaching at Winthrop, Wichita State or Clemson, that was one of the best defensive performances that I’ve seen. We’ve got one side of the equation figured out. We need to figure out the other side of the ball and if we do that then we’ll be playing our best basketball. We want to get a better offensive flow and still keep our defensive intensity the same as it was against Wilmington.”

The Cougars could see the return of junior forward Terrance O’Donohue this week. O’Donohue has missed the last seven games with an undisclosed injury. O’Donohue, who is averaging 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 17 appearances, returned to practice on Tuesday and is listed as probable against Northeastern.

“We’ll have to see how he practices this week, but it’ll probably be a game-time decision against Northeastern,” Grant said. “If he can’t play against Northeastern, I’m optimistic that he’ll be able to play Saturday against Hofstra.”

Evan Bailey, who missed the second half against UNC Wilmington after colliding with a player while chasing a loose ball, returned to practice on Tuesday and is expected to be play against the Huskies. Bailey is fifth on the team in scoring, averaging 6.5 points a game and third with 39 3-pointers.