RICHMOND — Their journey to the tourney began last summer with a sojourn to Canada, where the Northeastern men’s basketball team bonded on an exhibition tour. As is often the case, though, the path to the NCAA Tournament is not always gilded, or smoothly paved.
In their stirring 69-67 comeback victory over George Mason Sunday in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament at Richmond Coliseum, the top-seeded Huskies were nearly derailed before they had a chance to settle in for a stay they hope will end with their first CAA tourney title and their first NCAA berth in more than two decades.
NU’s dreams appeared doomed when the Huskies stumbled out of the gates, twice trailing the fourth-seeded Patriots by 24 points in the first half, 28-4 and 31-7. NU went scoreless for the first 9 minutes 34 seconds, missing its first nine shots and committing seven turnovers before Jonathan Lee tallied on a layup.
After appearances in the CAA semis in 2006 and 2010 ended in heartbreak, it appeared this trip would result in humiliation for the Huskies.
“Really, I thought it was just jitters coming out,’’ said NU coach Bill Coen, whose team had a seven-day layoff between games, having earned a bye to the semifinals. “We didn’t execute our stuff. We had open shots, missed open shots, missed foul shots.’’
Lee also tallied the Huskies’ last — and most decisive — field goal, with three seconds remaining.
“I just tried to make a quick move and get to the basket,’’ Lee said of his winning layup. “I tried to try [for] the foul or make the layup, and it worked out.’’
NU’s mercurial senior guard, who combined with fellow cocaptain Joel Smith to score 28 points, drove to his right against George Mason counterpart Bryon Allen (20 points), turned the corner near the baseline, and gently kissed the glass with a lefthanded layup to complete NU’s breathtaking comeback.
“Somehow along the way, these two guys up here found the will to win,’’ said Coen, flanked by Lee and Smith on the postgame dais. “It inspired their teammates and they just refused to let us lose.’’
Lee and Smith, who scored 14 points apiece, rescued NU from its abysmal first-half performance and helped the Huskies (20-11) earn their first appearance in the CAA championship game, opposite third-seeded James Madison (19-14) on Monday night. JMU was a 58-57 winner over Delaware in Sunday’s second semifinal.
“These kids have battled all year long and we’ve come back from double-digit deficits before,’’ Coen said. “They just believed in themselves, they trust themselves, and they trust each other.
“As long as there’s time on the clock, they’re going to continue to compete and battle. And we had just enough time on the clock to cut that deficit.’’
Demetrius Pollard, who scored 13 points off the bench, triggered a 12-0 run over the last 3:12 of the first half that pulled the Huskies within 31-19 at the break. It was part of a 26-2 run that spanned the first 3:04 of the second half, enabling NU to tie it at 33 on Smith’s layup with 16:56 to go.
Smith, who was 0 for 5 from the field (0 for 4 from the 3-point arc) in the first half, scored all of his points in the second half, draining back-to-back treys that got NU off and running after the break.
“First half, my shots weren’t falling, but my teammates stayed positive with me and kept feeding me the ball and kept giving me confidence to shoot the ball,’’ Smith said. “We came out in the second half, and kept shooting.’’
Smith hit a 3-pointer with 8:29 to go to give NU its first lead at 52-51. Quincy Ford (10 points, team-high six rebounds) gave NU a 61-60 lead with his layup with 5:03 left. But the Patriots scored 7 straight points to control a 67-61 advantage with 2:54 remaining.
The Huskies went on an 8-0 run by forcing four turnovers. The biggest was Ford’s steal of a handoff from Allen to Sherrod Wright underneath the Patriots’ basket, which gave NU the ball in a tie game with 29 seconds remaining, setting the stage for Lee’s heroics.
It brought NU to the threshold of its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1991.
“We’re making history right now,’’ Lee said. “Hopefully, we keep doing that and keep believing in ourselves. We hear year after year how Northeastern never did this or never did that. But we just keep taking these steps in our journey and keep doing amazing things.’’