UNCW Upsets Northeastern, Shakes Up CAA Standings

After a month away from Matthews Arena, Northeastern returned home with a 9-4 record, a top-100 KenPom rating, and a billing as CAA co-favorites with Hofstra. Despite entering Monday’s game as 11.5-point favorites, however, the Huskies couldn’t handle UNC Wilmington’s quickness and defensive pressure. The Seahawks pulled away after halftime for a 75-68 victory, snapping a four-game losing streak and moving each team to 1-1 in Colonial play.

Northeastern played its home CAA opener against UNC Wilmington before a thin break-week crowd.
Northeastern played its home CAA opener against UNC Wilmington before a thin break-week crowd.

UNCW started four guards against Northeastern’s tall, frontcourt-oriented lineup. (Forward Cedrick Williams moved to the bench while battling a stomach flu, though he still played 28 minutes.) The balance of power seesawed back and forth in the first half, as the two sides traded back-to-back runs of 10-1, 10-2, 11-3 and 10-2.

The Huskies never led, but they kept pace until the midpoint of the second half, when UNCW’s speed took over. Seahawks constantly drove into the paint — sometimes with help from strong ballscreens — and they were quick enough to evade Northeastern’s help defense. On one key possession with the hosts down 10 and reeling, Jordon Talley beat T.J. Williams off the dribble but threw up a wild, errant shot; after an offensive rebound, Freddie Jackson immediately blew by David Walker from nearly the same spot, finishing with an easy layup.

Talley scored a game-high 21 points, while Addison Spruill had 20 and Jackson added 18; the trio of guards combined to shoot 23-35, mostly near the rim. “I felt like we just had to play to our strengths,” UNCW coach Kevin Keatts said. “Our guys were able to get into the paint and finish.”

On the other end, the Huskies scored 68 points in as many possessions, with four players in double figures, but they couldn’t keep pace with UNCW despite their size advantage. Northeastern shot 46% on two-pointers (below its season average) and rebounded 21% of its missed shots (the Seahawks were slightly better). The visitors forced a pedestrian 13 turnovers, but their pressure disrupted the Huskies’ passing lanes and offensive sets.

“Size only matters close to the basket,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “A lot of the plays were being made in the middle of the floor, where we can’t take advantage of that size. I didn’t think it was their initial pressure, but it was our decision-making and our flow from our press offense to our [set] offense where we mishandled the ball.”

Three other thoughts from Monday’s upset:

1. There is a wide variety of styles in the CAA. Along with its smaller lineup, UNCW plays at a much faster tempo than Northeastern. The Seahawks are frenetic, especially on defense (with the fifth-shortest average possession length); the Huskies are patient, especially on offense (with the 62nd-longest average possession length). Northeastern also struggled in its fastest-paced game of the season, a 79-54 rout at UMass, which might be good news for future run-and-gunners such as Hofstra.

2. Northeastern doesn’t force turnovers. Though the Huskies entered Monday with a top-100 defense, they have one glaring flaw: They force turnovers on just 15.7% of possessions, worst in the CAA and #335 nationally. Northeastern avoids mistakes and clears the glass, but it couldn’t take advantage of the Seahawks’ tendency to give away the ball, forcing just 10 miscues for the game. Because they are so averse to turnovers, the Huskies have little margin for error in all other areas.

3. The Huskies are the first Colonial contender to slip up. After slight first-half struggles, Hofstra and William & Mary thrashed Delaware and Drexel, respectively, to remain perfect in the CAA. Both are now top-100 teams in the Pomeroy rankings; James Madison is also 2-0 but on the fringe of the top 200. Despite an early home loss, Northeastern is hardly a longshot with 16 games to play. And UNCW, while probably too erratic to take the title, has impressed so far in 2015 — the Seahawks led Hofstra deep into the second half Saturday.

“I think whoever wins this league is going to have at least four losses,” Coen said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to run through this league undefeated. There’s just too many good coaches, too many good players, too many good programs.”

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