Husson University's Justin Thompson of East Millinocket drives to the basket against the University of Maine at Presque Isle on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, to score his 1,000th career point with the Eagles at Newman Gymnasium in Bangor. Husson went on to win the game 84-81. Credit: Drew Hallett / Husson Athletics

A rugged non-conference schedule was followed by the cancellation of a planned trip to California over the holidays due to COVID-19 concerns.

Then the coronavirus itself engulfed much of the Husson University men’s basketball team, forcing two more games to be canceled and others to be played with a limited roster as athletes recovered.

Yet coach Warren Caruso’s club now is in the exact position it sought when preseason practices began last fall — hosting Saturday’s North Atlantic Conference championship game with an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament at stake.

Husson, the NAC East champion, will play West qualifier SUNY Polytechnic Institute of Utica, New York, in a 1 p.m. opening tipoff at Newman Gymnasium on the Bangor campus.

“The word we’ve used since last year is that we’re really grateful for the opportunity,” said Caruso, whose program is seeking its eighth NCAA tournament berth overall and first since 2019.

“I think our guys are playing with that mentality and certainly have come together in the last week in doing a lot of good things to get to this point.”

Husson, 14-9 overall and 9-3 in the NAC, dropped two of its last three regular-season contests  after a six-game winning streak, with a 58-54 win against Maine Maritime Academy in Castine on Feb. 12 finally securing the Eagles the No. 1 seed in the East — and ultimately the homecourt advantage in the NAC championship game.

The Eagles then avenged a late-season loss to Northern Vermont-Lyndon with an 89-66 victory in the NAC quarterfinals, then outlasted UMaine-Farmington 64-63 on a last-second shot by senior guard J Thomas in the semifinals.

“We knew it was going to be a dogfight with Farmington and we just happened to have the last possession and the ball went in,” Caruso said. “I thought we played well, we played tough and stayed in the moment and just played through what was a difficult game on both ends to get any momentum going offensively.”

SUNY Poly (18-9, 11-2 NAC) bested top-seeded SUNY Delhi 82-57 in last weekend’s NAC West semifinal.

The Wildcats scored a 70-60 victory at Husson in the only meeting between the finalists this season behind 17 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots from 6-foot-8-inch junior forward Josh Gregory, the recently named NAC player of the year.

But that Jan. 14 clash in Bangor came in the midst of Husson’s coronavirus issues, with the Eagles having been forced to cancel their two previous games and fielding just nine healthy players against the Wildcats.

That Husson roster included two players only two days removed from being sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols and limited to 15 minutes of playing time each against SUNY Poly.

Gregory (21.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg) is the Wildcats’ lead player, but SUNY Poly also gets key contributions from 6-6 junior center Jesse O’Dell (14.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and 6-3 sophomore guard L.J. Randle (10.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.4 assists per game).

“They play inside out and do a really good job of getting the ball inside on almost every trip,” Caruso said. “At the end of the day that’s going to be a big part of our focus. Their guard play is solid, they just feature the two guys inside more.”

Husson generates much of its offense on the perimeter, with senior guard D.J. Bussey (15.4 ppg), graduate guard Justin Thompson of East Millinocket (14.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 3.4 apg) and senior guard Justice Kendall (13.5 ppg, 3.6 apg) leading the way.

Bussey was a first-team All-NAC selection while Thompson earned second-team honors and Kendall was accorded honorable mention status.

Derek Collin, a 6-2 junior from Mount Desert, is likely to get the initial defensive assignment against Gregory while 6-9 sophomore Jared Balser of Topsham and 6-8 junior Cam Wood of Winthrop also will be pivotal to Husson’s effort to slow SUNY Poly’s inside game.

“How we defend as a team is going to play a big role in being successful on Saturday because they have a real balanced lineup. They just feature their inside play,” Caruso said.

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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...