When it visited William & Mary last month, Northeastern shot 2-20 from beyond the arc, its worst performance of the season. Without those outside shots, the Huskies couldn’t keep up with the hosts’ high-powered offense, losing 74-58. But in Wednesday’s rematch at Matthews Arena, needing a win to stay in the hunt for the CAA title, Northeastern’s shooting rebounded with a vengeance.
The Huskies made four three-pointers on their first five possessions and finished 9-16 from long range. Behind hot shooting from all parts of the floor, they scored 1.44 points per possession — one of the top 30 performances in D-I games this year — for a 75-64 victory.
“I’ve said all year long, excluding ourselves from this, I think they have the best team in the league,” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said. “They’ve got it all. They’ve got experience, they’ve played together for several years, they’ve got a post player as good as anybody in the league, they’ve got kids who can really shoot the ball, they’ve got a great coach, they know what they’re doing out there.”
Northeastern started the game as hot as possible, taking a 19-6 lead after just seven possessions. The Tribe, down their top perimeter defender in Daniel Dixon (who has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury), could not keep up with the Huskies’ one-touch passes and constant movement. All of the hosts’ first 13 baskets were assisted, leading them to an 80% effective field goal percentage in the first half.
“We came out and there was crisp ball movement, guys stepping into their shots,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “Those are the shots that go in — good shots go in, bad shots don’t. When you’re sharing the ball and moving the ball, and guys are passing the ball on time and on target, we have good shooters, and they’ll make those shots.”
Yet the Tribe’s potent offense kept the game within single digits at halftime. Star guard Marcus Thornton made several contested shots to finish with 17 points, passing 2000 for his career and moving into second place on his team’s all-time scoring list.
William & Mary finished even hotter than the hosts from outside, nailing 12 of 22 triples. But the Huskies maintained their lead by owning the glass, allowing only two offensive rebounds on 18 opportunities (while collecting eight of their own 21 misses).
Northeastern and the Tribe, ranked first and second in the preseason media poll, are now tied for second place in the CAA standings. They’re joined by James Madison (who edged Drexel at home), a half-game behind 10-4 UNC Wilmington (who visits Delaware tomorrow). With three games remaining (four for UNCW), the Colonial is still wide open.
Three other thoughts from Matthews Arena:
1. Northeastern’s offense varies with its outside shooting. The Huskies have enviable inside-out balance, and they prefer to shoot in the paint. But this year, their offense has been driven largely by their three-point shooting:
Every team scores more when it shoots better. But for Northeastern, three-point accuracy is a stronger predictor of offensive efficiency than two-point percentage, turnover rate, or any other factor. With much improved shooting this year, the Huskies may be able to ride longballs to a March run.
2. William & Mary’s offense is a tough matchup for Northeastern. The Tribe scored 1.23 points per possession on Wednesday night, but you wouldn’t know it from either coach’s postgame remarks.
Coen: “Defensively, I thought we were dialed in and did an admirable job against an explosive and efficient offensive team. Their stuff is really hard to guard — Coach Shaver does an amazing job with his team, they have terrific parts and they really play well together — so it’s a challenge when you prepare for his teams. For our guys, I thought they did a really good job concentrating and staying with the possession all the way through the shot clock.”
Shaver: “We scored some buckets late, which helps our percentages a bit. We were not very good offensively. I thought our shot selection was very poor. We were very quick, we didn’t make them guard us at times, so I think these statistics are a little misleading.”
William & Mary was indeed aided by a garbage-time flurry of points, but even before then, the visitors scored 1.13 ppp against one of the league’s best defenses. The Tribe has high standards (1.18 ppp in CAA play), but Shaver’s disappointment might also reflect that his team matches up very well with Northeastern’s defense.
The Huskies are great at avoiding cheap points: They rank sixth nationally in both defensive free throw rate and defensive rebound rate. But that caution comes with a cost. Northeastern doesn’t force many turnovers, resulting in a lot of first-chance shots from the field — which is perfectly fine by the Tribe, who have the nation’s fourth-best effective field goal percentage (57.3%). If there is a rematch in the CAA Tournament, Northeastern may have to be even tighter on defense, because it can’t count on shooting the lights out again.
3. Who will win the CAA? UNCW is in driver’s seat for today, with a half-game edge in the loss column, but they have to play surging Delaware Thursday night, the first of three away games remaining. Northeastern has the softest schedule, finishing with bottom-feeders Elon and College of Charleston, but both games will be on the road. At least two teams will likely share the title, and maybe more.
The tiebreaker math for the CAA Tournament will be messy; with such a deep field, seeding may not matter much anyway. The Tribe should enter Baltimore as a slight favorite, having outscored the CAA by a commanding .13 points per possession. Northeastern (+.08), UNCW (+.05) and James Madison (+.02) haven’t been nearly as dominant. But William & Mary has to show its current two-game losing streak isn’t a larger pattern, starting with Sunday’s trip to Hofstra.
“There’s a lot of pressure on our team right now that we have to learn to handle,” Shaver said. “It’s exciting to be in this position at this time of year, but it is a little bit of uncharted waters. We have to continue to battle, and we will.”