There was just no way Vasa Pusica was going walk out of the North Charleston Coliseum with another loss in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game.
Not after what happened last year.
Pusica, who missed most of the first half because of foul trouble, poured in 21 points and Bolden Brace nearly recorded a triple-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists to lead Northeastern past Hofstra, 82-74, Tuesday night in the CAA title game before a crowd of 2,892 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The No. 2 seeded Huskies (23-10) punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, the team’s first appearance in March Madness since winning the CAA back in 2015. The top-seeded Pride (27-7) won the regular-season and will get an automatic bid into the NIT.
A year ago, Pusica watched the Huskies squander a 17-point second half lead to College of Charleston in the championship game. The Serbian native poured in 30 points in the loss and it was the memory of that meltdown that fueled a fire for him and his teammates during in the offseason.
“Without that loss from last year I’m not sure we’d be in this position right now,” said Pusica, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. “I know the loss last year motivated me over the summer to work that much harder. It gave us a huge experience to be in that championship game. I think that means a lot. Today, I just think we had a little more calmness about us. I think in those tough moments we were able to go back to what happened last year and find a way to win.”
The Huskies made it look easy during the opening half, building a 16-point halftime lead, with Pusica on the bench in foul trouble. Jordan Roland, Donnell Gresham, Shawn Occeaus chipped in with 3-pointers as Hofstra looked confused defensively. During a seven-minute stretch the Huskies outscored the Pride, 20-8, to take control of the game and hold a 42-26 at halftime.
“I have no explanation for the way we played in the first half,” said Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich. “I thought we were ready, I thought we had a lot of energy, but we just didn’t come out and play like we should have in the first half.”
The Pride wasted little time getting back into the game using a 12-2 run to open the second half to cut the gap to 44-38 on Justin Wright-Foreman’s layup with 16:30 to play. Wright-Foreman, the CAA player of the Year, finished with a game-high 29 points and scored 72 points over the final two games of the tournament.
The Pride tied the game at 54 on two free throws from Jacquil Taylor with 9:10 to play.
But instead of imploding like the Huskies did a year ago against the Cougars, Pusica took matters into his own hands. A deep 3-pointer from the top of the key, then another from the wing and the final dagger from nearly 30 feet out gave the Huskies a 71-60 lead with 3:52 to play.
“I knew I hadn’t played a good game to that point,” Pusica said. “I wanted to pick things up. I didn’t want to go out with a bad performance and a loss again. My shots started to fall.”
The difference, Occeaus said, was the crowd, or lack thereof. A year ago, it was more or less a home game as 7,000 screaming Cougar fans helped College of Charleston to the win. This year, with a half-empty coliseum, there was little energy the Pride could draw from.
“The crowd was a big difference from last year,” said Occeaus, who finished with 11 points and four steals. “The crowd gave Charleston that extra energy last year and it wasn’t there for Hofstra as much tonight.”
While Pusica said the sting of the 2018 loss to the Cougars won’t completely fade away, Tuesday night’s championship win certainly helps ease the pain.
“This definitely makes up for last year,” Pusica said. “Last year’s loss makes this win feel even that much sweeter for us.”