The Husson University men’s basketball team spent much of the winter leading the North Atlantic Conference standings and poised to host this weekend’s league tournament for the chance to return to the NCAA Division III tournament.

But when the University of Maine at Farmington upset Husson in the Eagles’ Senior Night game at Newman Gymnasium on Feb. 14, the conference tourney also shifted to the cozy confines of New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire.

“It’s a bit of a challenge from the standpoint of space,” said Husson coach Warren Caruso, whose team tied for the NAC lead but lost the tiebreaker to NEC due to two narrow losses to the Pilgrims during the regular season.

“It’s very tight around the perimeter of the court and the stands only hold about 400, so it will be a great opportunity for us to go into a situation that’s difficult to play in and be successful. We’ve been playing there for the last eight or 10 years so our guys are prepared for it and it should be a lot of fun.”

Friday’s semifinals match No. 1 NEC (19-6, 15-3 NAC) against No. 5 UMaine-Farmington (15-12, 11-7) at 5 p.m. and Husson (19-6, 15-3) against No. 3 Colby-Sawyer of New London, New Hampshire (18-8, 13-5) at 7:30.

The winners meet at 2 p.m. Saturday with the champion earning the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid.

Certainly there was disappointment when Husson let the homecourt advantage slip away, but the team’s goal of reaching the NCAAs for the seventh time in the last 10 years remains intact.

“The only thing that’s changed is how the script is going to be written,” said Caruso. “We had a great opportunity to write that script at home, but now we’ve got to go on the road and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. We’ve got two games to play to go back to the NCAAs and right now we’re focused on Friday and we’ll worry about Saturday after Friday’s game.”

This tournament looms as fairly wide open, with UMF the hottest team in the league — unbeaten in its last 11 NAC games including Tuesday’s 92-83 quarterfinal victory at No. 4 Thomas College of Waterville.

Coach Dick Meader’s Beavers have five scorers averaging in double figures: forwards Riley Robinson of Dixfield (15.5 ppg), Melani Hicks of Scarborough (14.8 ppg) and Bill Ruby of Gorham (13.7 ppg) and guards Issac Witham of Smithfield (12.4 ppg) and Amir Moss of Portland (10.1 ppg).

Husson has averaged a robust 86.4 points per game this winter behind redshirt senior guard Raheem Anderson, who on Thursday became the first player to win back-to-back NAC player of the year honors since former Husson great Ray Alley in 1993-94.

The preseason All-American from Miramar, Florida, leads the conference at 21.3 points per game this winter on 46 percent shooting from the field and 89.4 percent from the free-throw line.

Junior forward Justin Martin of Winslow, a second-team All-NAC pick, has been a top two-way threat for the Eagles with 10.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots outing, while fellow All-NAC second teamer D.J. Bussey is one of several impact freshman on the roster with 10.1 points per game and ranks 10th nationally with his 46.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Other leading scorers are senior guard Mitch Worcester of Washburn (9.5 ppg) and freshman forward Justin Thompson of East Millinocket (8.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg).

“We really like how we’re playing. Except for a 10-minute span of the Farmington game we’ve been playing our best basketball,” said Caruso. “We’re healthy, we like what we’re doing, we’re using a lot of combinations, We like our chances.”

Husson defeated Colby-Sawyer twice earlier this season by an average of 19 points, but the Eagles will have to contend with Chargers’ 6-foot-8 sophomore center Dana Bean, an All-NAC first-team choice after averaging 16.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

Colby-Sawyer junior guard Jourdain Bell scored 34 points — including the 1,000th of his career — Tuesday night during the Chargers’ 99-95 double-overtime quarterfinal victory over No. 6 Castleton (Vermont) University.

“We felt the NAC was going to be deeper than it’s been and if you look at the records it doesn’t show that. But if you look further, particularly at the top six, there were two close (quarterfinals) and everyone’s beaten everybody,” said Caruso.

“Everyone has to feel they can win this based on what transpired during the regular season.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...