BOSTON -- Northeastern's upset of then-#15 Miami in late November made Huskies fans believe that when #1 Michigan State Spartans came to Matthews Arena, a miracle could be in the cards. For about the first ten minutes of today's contest, those beliefs seemed to be coming true. The Huskies got off to a 15-10 lead, mainly due to senior forward Zach Stahl's toughness down low - he finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, four of which were offensive.
But the Spartans quickly regained a lead at 17-15, and things got out of hand for head coach Bill Coen and the Huskies from there.
Northeastern seniors David Walker and Quicy Ford, who averaged a combined 38 points per game coming in, went just 8-of-25 from the field, including 1-of-8 from three. The Huskies went just 2-for-16 from three as a team.
"We're a better shooting team than that, we're a better foul shooting team than that," Coen said. The Huskies shot 37.3% from the field and 52.2% from the line. "I think the pace they play at and the physicality with which they play really forces you into a different type of game, and we fell into that trap today."
Walker was matched up with Denzel Valentine, Sparty's best player and likely All-American, and defended him fairly well. Valentine finished with 17 points, six assists and six rebounds but when Walker was matched up with him the senior guard was forced into making tough passes and had a hand in his face.
But Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was able to go to his bench and find meaningful contributions, a luxury Coen didn't have. Northeastern was outscored 27-5 by Sparty's bench.
"They got tremendous production - they didn't have to play anybody 30 minutes. That's an extreme luxury, and it's one of their best assets. They come at you with fresh bodies, keep the tempo at a high pace, and have that weardown effect," Coen said.
The Huskies went into the locker room at halftime with a manageable nine point deficit, but the difference in athleticism between the two teams became apparent in the second half.
Coen went to a full-court press early in the second half after the Spartans went on a 12-0 run to make it 50-32, and that proved to be a fatal mistake. While the Huskies forced a turnover right away, Michigan State came back with a few easy layups in transition after beating the press with their superior speed and passing ability and put the game away.
"I know we didn't come away with a victory today, but every time you take the court you want to gain a little bit of success. If there's one takeaway from today, I think we earned a little bit of respect from coach Izzo and his program. But we have to get better," Coen said.
Indeed, Izzo had high praise for the Huskies after the 78-58 win.
"I give Northeastern all the credit in the world - they got every loose ball, they got every rebound," Izzo said. The Huskies outrebounded the Spartans, the first time that has happened to Michigan State all season. "I give a lot of credit to Bill [Coen]. Northeastern's got a good basketball team, and they're a team that's gonna get into that tournament in my humble opinion."
Northeastern sits at 7-4 on the season after the loss. The Huskies take on NC State on December 29th before getting into conference play on New Year's Eve against Elon.