This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for College of Charleston.
There was supposed to be confetti falling from rafters of the North Charleston Coliseum, and hugs and tears of joy, and the traditional cutting down of the nets, and, of course, a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
But Charleston’s season came to end Monday night against Northeastern, the team the Cougars beat a year ago in the Colonial Athletic Association title game, to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid in nearly two decades.
A year after pouring in 30 points in the championship game only to loss to the Cougars, Northeastern’s Vasa Pusica scored 13 points, including four crucial points in the final minute of play, to lift the Huskies past College of Charleston, 70-67, in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament before a rowdy crowd of 3,599 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Northeastern (22-10), the preseason favorite to win the CAA, will face top-seeded Hofstra – a 78-74 overtime winner behind a tournament record 42 points from the Pride’s Justin Wright-Foreman – in the CAA Championship game, Tuesday night beginning at 7 p.m. The game will televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.
The Cougars finished the season at 24-9. Charleston is unlikely to get a bid into the NIT and school officials confirmed Monday night that they are not interested in playing in any of the lower postseason tournaments.
In a back-and-forth game that saw eight ties and 17 lead changes, it was a driving layup from Pusica that gave the Huskies a 66-65 lead with 36 seconds to play. It would be a lead that the Huskies would never surrendered.
“This makes up a little bit for what happened last year, but a win tomorrow is what we’re all playing for,” Pusica said. “We didn’t want to walk out of here again feeling like we did last year. We just found a way to win, got some stops down the stretch, and grinded this one out.”
Jarrell Brantley, who led the Cougars with 18 points and 10 rebounds, tried to answer Pusica’s basket, but his layup attempt with 26 seconds left rolled off the rim. There appeared to be some contact on the play, but Brantley shrugged it off after the game.
“The officials let us play tonight, so I'm not going to complain about any of the calls,” Brantley said. “That’s a shot I make almost all the time. I had a couple like that late in the game that I normally make, but give Northeastern credit, they did a good job defensively.”
After two Pusica’s free throws that gave the Huskies a 68-65 advantage with 17 second to play, Charleston had a chance to tie the game when senior Marquise Pointer was fouled with three seconds left and was awarded three free throws. Pointer, who hit two crucial 3-pointers against the Huskies a year ago in the Cougars championship game victory, made the first free throw, missed the second, and tried to miss the third, but it rattled in to close the gap to 68-67.
“I told Marquise that I loved him,” Brantley said. “That free throw didn’t lose us the game. We had our chances to win the game. I missed some shots, we had some missed rebounds. We’re not in this game without Marquise. He’s made some big shots during his career, especially during last year's in the finals.”
Northeastern’s Donnell Gresham was fouled with 2.2 seconds to play and made both free throws to give the Huskies a 70-67 lead.
Grant Riller’s desperation heave at the buzzer from midcourt was well off the mark.
“This is a special group,” said College of Charleston coach Earl Grant. “I’m just sorry that I won’t get another chance to coach this group again. We had our chances down the stretch, but we came up a little bit short. I’m just really proud of our players. Give Northeastern a lot of credit, they found a way to win.”
Riller, who averaged more than 22 points a game during the regular-season, was held to just 10 points against the Huskies. Shawn Occeaus, who led the Huskies with 17 points, guarded Riller most of the night.
“It wasn’t just me, it was my teammates, too,” Occeaus said. “Riller is a great player, a tough player to defend, but I thought we had a good game plan and everyone helped out.”
The 6-4 Occeaus missed large chunks of the season with a sprained ankle. He was six of nine from the floor, including four of seven from 3-point range.
“He means lot to this team,” said Northeastern coach Bill Coen. “Not just offensively, but defensively. He can guard three or four different positions for us. It’s been a frustrating season for Shawn because of the injuries.”
Northeastern dominated the glass, outrebounding the Cougars, 35-24, which included 12 offensive rebounds and 14 second chance points.
“We had to give up something,” Grant said. “We wanted to take away their 3-point shooters and we got caught on a couple of switches down low. We needed to gang rebound a little bit more, but I thought we cleaned it up in the second half and did a better job.”
Both teams appeared to be a little nervous from the opening tipoff as neither was able to find an offensive groove until about midway through the opening half.
The lead changed hands throughout the first 10 minutes before the Cougars went on a 12-2 run to take control of the game. A 3-pointer from Brantley, a driving layup from Riller and a Nick Harris layup gave Charleston a 29-20 lead with 6:03 to play.
Occeaus made three 3-pointers to keep Northeastern in the game. The Huskies answered with a 15-4 run to end the half. Occeaus’ layup with 42 seconds to play gave the Huskies a 35-33 halftime lead.
Brevin Galloway scored 12 points for the Cougars.