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NU, Utah State a good match

Internet hookup results in entertaining game

By Joe Sullivan
Globe Staff / November 22, 2009

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They met on the Internet. Northeastern and Utah State, two lonely teams looking for a game, found each other on the website basketballtravelers.com.

“It’s sort of the eHarmony of basketball,’’ said Utah State assistant coach Tim Duryea.

It’s where you find out that Louisville needs a “high major’’ opponent to open its new arena next season. Kansas has four dates for teams that are willing to take money in exchange for losing in Lawrence, Kan. Even UMass is seeking three home games for next season and is willing to pay teams to come to Amherst.

Neither Northeastern nor Utah State was willing to pay or looking to get paid to play a basketball game. Both schools just wanted an opponent, and that’s why Utah State traveled 2,000 miles for a noon tip-off at Matthews Arena yesterday. The sparse crowd of 1,927 got to watch a highly entertaining game - won by Northeastern, 64-61 - between teams that are not appealing to the NCAA selection committee when it’s dispensing at-large berths in March or to BCS schools that mostly want to play at home and most definitely don’t want to lose a game to a non-BCS school.

“My first priority with travel and scheduling is to stay West as much as we can,’’ said Utah State coach Stew Morrill. “Our league [the Western Athletic Conference] is so spread out, we go to Louisiana Tech and Hawaii in conference games every year, that I prefer not to fly across country for a nonleague game, but we have a really hard time getting people to play home and home. If you’ve had any success like we have, and everyone’s gotten so paranoid about scheduling, it’s hard to get anyone to play.’’

Success would certainly be the right word when speaking about Utah State basketball. In the last 10 years, the Aggies have averaged 25.2 victories per season, and they have the fourth-best winning percentage (252-78 .764) in the nation this decade. They’ve been to the postseason the last 10 years, including six NCAA bids, and the four years they were excluded had a lot to do with whom they played. Other teams don’t want to travel to Logan, Utah (you have to fly into Salt Lake City and then drive an hour and half north), and as Morrill will tell you off the top of his head, his teams are 159-12 at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, which seats 10,270 and is sold out for almost every home game.

“We’re not really a nationally known product but we are a nationally known product to coaches,’’ said Duryea, who organizes the schedule for Utah State. “That makes us kind of dangerous to schedule for a lot of teams. Northeastern has a lot of those same qualities. When the two of us got together in the spring, we were both stuck in the same boat, we both needed a game.’’

Despite that, Northeastern coach Bill Coen wasn’t ready to jump right into this.

“Scheduling is so difficult, you just want to be done with it,’’ said Coen. “It’s like musical chairs, you just want to have a seat when the music stops. We both had a date available but even though we were going to be at home, they’re still too good . . . I don’t think people in the East understand how good that program is and what they’ve accomplished.’’

Finally in August they agreed, Utah State would play in Boston this season and Northeastern will travel to Logan next season. Part of the deal was Northeastern agreeing to start the game at noon so Utah State could get a flight back home last night. The last game Utah State played in the Eastern time zone was in the 2001 NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. The last regular-season game the Aggies played in the Eastern time zone was in the Indiana Classic in Indianapolis in December 1988. A game in the Northeast? You have to go back to March 1969, when the Aggies played Saint Peter’s in Jersey City, N.J.

For the first 10 minutes of yesterday’s game, Coen’s fears were realized. Utah State was in control, sprinting to a 19-4 lead, mostly by getting the ball inside to Tai Wesley, who hit 6 of 8 shots by using a series of spin moves and shots off the glass. But they also got three 3-pointers from backup guard Jaxon Myaer. Meanwhile, Tyler Newbold had a firm hold on Northeastern star Matt Janning, denying him the ball as part of a sticky man-to-man defense. It wasn’t until Newbold left the game for seven minutes with 12:51 remaining in the first half that Janning was able to get going. He led the Huskies back into the game, ending the half with 9 points as Northeastern closed the gap to 34-28.

The second half was decidedly different. “The game got more physical in the second half,’’ said Morrill. “They pushed us around a little bit.’’

Northeastern’s guards started penetrating into the lane and looking for shots or fouls. They got a lot of free throws, with Chaisson Allen making 4 of 5 and Baptiste Bataille hitting 4 of 4. It was a short turnaround jumper, however, by Manny Adako that gave Northeastern (1-1) its first lead, 44-43, with 10:46 to play.

As the clock ticked under one minute and with the score tied at 58, Northeastern had possession and Bataille, a senior guard from France, stuck with a successful strategy, driving to the basket and getting fouled. He made both.

Utah State went inside to its best big man, Wesley, who was guarded one-on-one but decided to pass the ball back to the perimeter. Allen leaped high to snatch it away. He was fouled and made both free throws to seal the game with 10 seconds left.

“That was just an outstanding defensive play,’’ said Coen. “A game-winning play.’’

“When our big guys get the ball on the block in a one-on-one situation, we want them to try to score,’’ lamented Morrill.

Utah State packed up quickly to head to Logan Airport to catch its flight. The Aggies (1-2) were originally scheduled to fly nonstop to Salt Lake City, but the flight was cancelled and they had to fly through Atlanta. Just another reason to second-guess the trip.

“I wouldn’t say that,’’ said Morrill. “We got to see Boston, we had a nice tour [Friday]. It was a good experience for our players. I would do it again.’’

Joe Sullivan can be reached at jtsullivan@globe.com