ATLANTA — There was a loose ball with the shot clock running down, and Northeastern’s Jonathan Lee came up with it to set up the game’s biggest bucket.
Well, of course Lee snatched the crucial loose ball. He’s done it most of the season.
There was a big shot to be made. Joel Smith made it.
Of course he did. He’s done it throughout his career.
There were free throws to be made (27 in a row, in fact). Of course, the Huskies made those, too.
Seniors Lee and Smith and the resilient Northeastern basketball team have traveled this road before, plenty of times. They win loose balls, hit big shots, hit free shots, and win close games. They own the formula and they put it all in one package Wednesday night in a 90-84 overtime victory over Georgia State that clinched the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title.
Smith scored 29 points, and none were bigger than the corner 3-pointer he drilled with 23 seconds remaining that gave the Huskies (19-10, 14-3) an 86-82 lead.
With NU up, 83-82, and plenty of time for the Panthers to come down and win, Lee won a scramble for a ball and passed to Smith in the corner.
“I got a quick glance at the rim, that’s all,” said Smith, who tied his career high. “I know we started with 52 seconds on the shot clock and I saw the clock was at 20-something and I said, ‘Uh-oh, get rid of it.’ One glance is all I needed.”
Northeastern, which was down 13 in the first half, won for the sixth time this season after trailing by double digits. The Huskies are 11-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer in the conference.
Just as remarkable was the free throw shooting, 27 out of 27, for the leading free throw shooting team in the CAA.
“They’re free,” said Smith, who was 8 of 8 from the line, including 4 for 4 in the last 12 seconds in overtime. “You’re supposed to make them.”
The CAA tournament starts March 9 in Richmond, Va., and NU is in terrific shape after a late-season downturn that coincided with Smith’s left ankle injury. Picked to finish fifth in the preseason, the Huskies captured their first-ever CAA title and will be the No. 1 seed.
“They are unflappable,” said coach Bill Coen. “They win in overtime, they win in double overtime, they hit big shots, they execute with the game on the line. This is a very resilient group.
“It will be nice to go home for senior night without the pressure of having to win. It is going to be an emotional time for Jon and Joel because they have meant so much to the program. They have been cornerstones.”
Georgia State (15-16) entered the game as a .500 team but played much better than that in the first half when it built a 37-30 lead. The Panthers, who lost at Northeastern, 78-73, Jan. 30, shot 52 percent in the half. The Huskies shot 41 percent against a good Georgia State zone defense and got down by 13, 37-24, with 2:02 left in the half.
But David Walker and Smith made sure things did not get out of hand. Walker drained a 3-pointer with 1:45 left in the half and Smith hit a three from the corner with 45 seconds left and Northeastern was down, 37-30, at the break.
In the second half, the Huskies got their energy back and tied the score, 43-43, with 14:24 to play. Coen said the fast break was important because Northeastern wanted to beat Georgia State to the other end of the floor before it could set up its zone.
The Huskies got a big game off the bench from 6-foot-5-inch freshman Zach Stahl, who had 12 points and seven rebounds. Several times down the stretch in regulation, Stahl made contested baskets inside and was fouled.
“That’s the beauty of this team,” Coen said. “People step up.”
Lee was just 1 of 8 from the field, but he made all nine of his free throws and had 11 points. Walker scored 16 points.