BANGOR — It was a matter of trust Friday afternoon for the Husson University men’s basketball team.
The top-seeded Eagles played solid man-to-man defense down the stretch and came up with a handful of clutch plays in the last 90 seconds to pull out a 75-73 victory over No. 4 Castleton State in the semifinals of the North Atlantic Conference men’s basketball tournament at Newman Gymnasium.
“That was a great tournament game,” said coach Warren Caruso, whose Eagles (20-6) advance to Saturday’s 2 p.m. championship game against No. 2 Lyndon State (12-14), a 111-108 winner over No. 3 Thomas College of Waterville in Friday’s other semifinal.
“That’s what you expect. Everybody’s fighting for their life,” Caruso added.
It was Husson’s third win of the season over the Spartans (15-12), who took the Eagles to the wire for the second time. Husson won 63-60 at Castleton on Feb. 12.
This time, Greg Hughes’ 20-foot runner glanced off the backboard as time expired.
“I thought he took one too many dribbles and just flung it up there,” said Castleton coach Paul Culpo.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win tonight, we just didn’t get the job done,” he added.
Husson did get the job done on defense, affording the Spartans only six points in the final 6 1/2 minutes. The Eagles’ man-to-man was able to take away the frequent dribble penetration that helped Castleton build a nine-point first-half lead.
“We’ve just got to lock up (defensively). We’ve got trust in each other,” said Husson sophomore guard Daeshawn McMorrin.
Castleton State committed six turnovers during a 2 1/2-minute span to help fuel a 4-0 Husson spurt, then failed to execute on a couple of key plays in the last 12 seconds.
“I thought we did a great job around the 4 1/2-, 5-minute mark, increasing our defensive intensity and making things a little more difficult,” Caruso said.
The Spartans had an opportunity to take the lead with a fast break off two Husson misses and a Mark Comstock defensive rebound. However, Comstock eventually lost the handle in the lane and Husson’s Eric Modica dove to the floor to save the ball inbounds to a teammate.
“If I’m giving out a game ball, it’s going to Modica,” Caruso said.
Modica finished with 15 points and nine rebounds for the Eagles, who quickly called timeout with 5.3 seconds left, forcing Castleton to foul. Luis Medina made one of two foul shots to provide the winning margin.
Senior Josh Jones of Jefferson, the NAC Player of the Year, had converted a free throw with 1:01 left to put Husson ahead for good.
“It was a close game,” said Jones, who led Husson with 19 points and 15 rebounds. “I had enough trust in my family, my teammates. We came together and ended it strong.”
The Eagles nearly placed five players in double figures. McMorrin tallied 16, hitting three 3-pointers. He had gone 0-for-32 from long range during the regular season.
“You’ve got to have a short memory,” he said of his shooting. “You just let it loose.”
Senior Jay Uhrin of Winterport scored 13 points and Medina contributed nine points and six assists for Husson, which was 9-for-17 from the foul line.
Castleton shot 52 percent for the game, combining strong penetration moves out of its spread set with 9-for-19 3-point shooting. The Spartans shot 52 percent overall (27-for-52) and outrebounded Husson 35-33.
Mike Knight scored a game-high 22 points to lead Castleton, while Kevin Eisenberg posted 14 points, Jared Paul had 13 points and seven rebounds and Comstock added 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The Spartans led by as many as nine points (36-27) with 5:13 remaining in the first half. Eisenberg scored eight points during the 11-3 run.
However, Uhrin scored nine of his points to spearhead a 12-2 surge to end the half, boosting Husson to a 41-40 lead at the break.
In the first game, No. 3 Thomas charged back from a 24-point, first-half deficit, but Lyndon State was able to make enough plays to pull out the victory.
League rookie of the year Phil Warrick poured in 32 points to pace the Hornets, while Antonio Mena contributed 21 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. Jose Fortunato had 17 points and six assists, while D.J. Santos and Jason Gray had 14 and 11 points, respectively.
Franklin Salvador’s 29 points led Thomas (15-10). Andrew Duncanson of Portland scored 24, Jarrad DeVaughn registered 20 points and 18 rebounds and Isaiah Brathwaite of Farmington added 16 points and six assists.