Virtually any competitive team begins its season hoping not only to win its last game, but to win all its games. It’s an ambition much more easily envisioned than achieved.
Gonzaga University is on the brink of becoming the first men’s basketball team to capture the NCAA Division I championship with an undefeated record since Indiana achieved that feat back in 1976.
The 10-0 finish this winter by the Husson University men’s basketball squad certainly won’t be measured by those standards, as the Eagles had no championship at stake after the North Atlantic Conference canceled its 2020-21 season in January due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Eagles’ determination to make the most of an abbreviated and uncertain basketball experience culminated in a perfect record and momentum for what it hopes is a return to competitive normalcy next winter.
Coach Warren Caruso’s club capped off its season with a weekend sweep of nonconference rival Saint Joseph’s College, 92-75 Friday at Newman Gymnasium in Bangor and 81-78 Sunday in Standish in its season finale. The latter was Husson’s only victory not secured by double digits.
“It’s been a great experience,” Eagles senior guard and co-captain D.J. Bussey said. “We had our bumps in the road with the whole COVID thing, not knowing if we were going to be practicing or even with games, but it’s just been a great journey. We’ve gotten to know more of the guys and really got to know what everybody could do and were able to translate that into the games.”
Friday’s contest marked the first time Husson was able to play in front of a small gathering of fans, socially distanced in the bleachers opposite the team benches.
“That was good to see,” said sophomore Scott Lewis, who led the Eagles with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field along with 14 rebounds and four assists. “We played really well. We came out with a lot of intensity and stuck with our game plan and I think it showed on the court.”
Husson put together one of the larger impromptu schedules among New England’s small-college programs with two matchups each against UMaine-Presque Isle, Northern Vermont-Lyndon and Saint Joseph’s and one game apiece against UMaine-Fort Kent, Maine Maritime Academy of Castine, Thomas College of Waterville and UMaine-Farmington.
“I’m so happy to be able to actually get a season in, so I’ve been going out here every day playing like it’s my last game,” junior guard Justice Kendall said. “Now I feel like the way this turned out can catapult us to new heights.”
Husson averaged a robust 90.9 points per game despite having no one scoring more than Bussey’s 15.2 points per contest.
The Eagles’ depth turned out to be one of the team’s most prominent features as seven players averaged at least 7 points while five others logged between 4.4 and 5.6 points per outing.
“We treat every game like it’s a championship game and give it 100 percent at both ends of the floor and make sure we get the win,” Bussey said.
Bussey was one of three scorers to average in double figures along with the 6-foot-7 Lewis (13.5 ppg, 8.2 rebounds per game) and junior guard J Thomas (10.4 ppg).
Co-captain Justin Thompson of East Millinocket, who along with Bussey were the lone seniors on the 17-player roster, thrived in the team’s sixth-man role while contributing 9.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest.
Kendall (8.4 ppg, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game), sophomore center Cam Wood of Winthrop via the University of Southern Maine (7.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and first-year forward Isaac Varney of Glenburn and Hermon High School (7.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.3 steals per outing) were other key contributors.
“I feel like we went past my expectations,” Kendall said. “We pushed the pedal and everybody stepped up their games. Everybody wants to make each other better and that will make us better for the future, for sure.”
Bussey and Thompson are both expected to return for a fifth season under an NCAA waiver that provides all student-athletes during the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 academic year an extra year of eligibility. Husson aspires to use its pandemic season to fuel its pursuit of 2022 NAC championship and a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019.
“Our goal this year was to get ready for a championship, to come back next year and play at a really high level,” Lewis said. “We’re not done yet.”