HENS ON THE RUN: Delaware’s Transition Game Too Much for Northeastern
BALTIMORE — The top-seeded Delaware Blue Hens thought they had put away the upstart, fifth-seeded Northeastern Huskies early in their Colonial Athletic Association semifinal game at the Baltimore Arena on Sunday afternoon.
But after the gritty Huskies (11-21, 8-10 CAA) battled back and took a first-half lead, the Blue Hens (24-9, 16-2 CAA) who showed their own resilience with defensive pressure and incredibly efficient second-half shooting in an 87-74 victory that landed Delaware in the CAA finals for the first time on Monday night.
Delaware got all but seven points from its starting five, including Baltimore area products Davon Usher (game-high 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting) and Devon Saddler (16 points, 11 in the second half).
Saddler, the Blue Hens’ all-time leading scorer (whom head coach Monte Ross has nicknames Saddles), is tied with Hofstra’s Zeke Upshaw for the league scoring lead with 19.8 points per game, and Usher is right behind them with a scoring average of 19.7 per contest.
“They make their coach look like he knows what he’s doing,” Ross said. “These guys were born to score. Davon has been scoring for us since he came out of the womb. Saddles was doing the same thing. He was probably scoring at conception. Once those guys get going, I pretty much just stay out of the way.”
Guard Jarvis Threatt — from Richmond, where the CAA tournament was held for 24 years before moving near the hometowns of Usher and Saddler this year — scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, as forward Carl Baptiste had 14 points in a foul-plagued 16 minutes, and guard Kyle Anderson added 10 points.
Northeastern’s best player, junior forward Scott Eatherton, had 20 point and eight rebounds, and reserve guard Reggie Spencer nearly matched him with 18 points and eight rebounds, but those two were the only Huskies to score in double figures.
Eartherton’s second personal foul, just 3:44 in, was a blessing in disguise for Northeastern, as it forced head coach Bill Coen to later switch defenses.
Missing their first 10 shots, and playing man-to-man defense at the other end, the Huskies fell behind, 10-0, and then 19-5, after an Usher 3-pointer with 12:47 left in the first half.
But Northeastern, which didn’t score until Spencer had a 3-point play 5:27 into the game, quickly turned the tables with 11 straight points to trigger a 21-5 run that gave the Huskies their first lead, 26-24, at the 7:16 mark.
That spurt was extended to 26-7, as Northeastern took its largest lead of the game, 31-26, just 1:23 later.
Responding with a 13-6 run to close the half, Delaware took a slim 39-37 edge into the locker room.
“I thought that our guys were really resilient tonight,” Moss said. “To go out to [a big] lead, 19-5, and to have [Northeastern] come back on us and take the lead… we got down five and we fought back, and were up two at the half.”
After a jumper by Eatherton kept the Huskies within 48-46, almost four minutes into the second half, the Blue Hens’ defense induced turnovers and easy transition baskets at the opposite end, and 3-pointers, as Delaware went on a game-turning 18-2 run to go up 66-48, with 11:19 left.
The lead grew to as much as 74-52, on a 3-pointer by Saddler, with 8:56 remaining, and Northeastern could never recover.
Following 44.8 percent shooting (13-for-29) in the opening half, the Blue Hens shot an astounding 76 percent (19-for-25) after the break, while starting the second half 18-for-21 (85.7 percent) — something that even surprised Ross when he was told of that fact.
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” he said.
While Ross often gives most of the credit to his players, his halftime adjustments paid off in helping Delaware pull away, while noting that Northeastern’s change to a zone defense hurt his team initially.
“Those first seven or eight minutes, that was as active and energetic as we’ve been defensively all season,” he said. “[But then] we hadn’t seen zone in a while… so at halftime what we were talking about is getting movement and then attacking.”
Ross added, “In the second half, our energy and intensity is what we needed it to be, especially on the defensive end. It really fueled our guys making shots on the offensive end.”
Acknowledging how that affected his own team, Coen said, “We got into a scramble game. We got caught up a little bit and got away from what we do.”
Asked if there was a good way to combat that, Coen added, “You can show a little bit more discipline in your shot selection. If you take quick shots, you feed into it. Some of the turnovers are under your control, but they do have some length and quickness. We just got sped up. We got caught playing faster than we like to play, and when you do that, mistakes happen. You don’t typically get the type of shots that you practice every day in practice. The ball handling gets sped up, you get quicker shots… we had about a six-minute stretch where we lost our composure and we couldn’t get it back to where we needed to. That’s what good teams do, and they’re a very good team.”
On reaching the CAA finals for the first time in his stellar four-year career, Saddler was happy but not yet satisfied.
“It means a lot to get past the semifinals because my first three years, we never got to this point,” he said. “I just feel something special about this team and I think we can make this happen… we got one more game and we’re going to leave it all on the floor.”
Playing for what would be its first CAA tournament title (to add to three America East titles in the 1990s), Delaware, which won its first CAA regular season championship this year, will face third-seeded William & Mary on Monday night, at 7 p.m. eastern.