RICHMOND — In a superb year for guards in the Colonial Athletic Association, it was fitting that a few of the league's best got their teams into the tournament championship game.
Devon Moore's two free throws with four seconds remaining lifted James Madison to a 58-57 win against Delaware. This after Jonathan Lee's driving layup with three seconds left was the difference in Northeastern's comeback for the ages, 69-67 against George Mason in Sunday's first semifinal at the Richmond Coliseum.
"It's the collective heart in our locker room," Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. "These kids have battled all year long. We've come back from double-digit deficits before. They believe in themselves, they trust themselves, and they trust each other. As long as there's time on the clock, they're going to continue to compete. We had just enough time on the clock to overcome that deficit."
Top-seeded Northeastern (20-11) plays for its first CAA title since joining the league in 2005, while No. 3 seed JMU (19-14) makes its first championship game appearance since 1997. The 7 p.m. title game Monday is the last one in Richmond, before the event moves to Baltimore next year.
Both winners appeared destined to be spectators. The Huskies didn't score for the first 9:24 and trailed 28-4 and 31-7 against a Mason team that was sharp and active defensively.
But reserve Demetrius Pollard, a sophomore from Virginia Beach, provided a spark and Northeastern fairly took off on offense in the game's final 23 minutes. The Huskies scored the final 12 points of the first half to cut the lead to 31-19. NU hit three 3-pointers to start the second half and opened the half on a 14-2 run to tie the game at 33.
Mason, the No. 4 seed, surged ahead again by as many as eight points and led 67-61 with 2:52 remaining. But the Patriots (18-14) didn't score again and committed turnovers on their final four possessions, not counting a long, desperation heave by Marko Gujanicic at the buzzer.
The last turnover, when Sherrod Wright fumbled away a pass under the basket from Bryon Allen, set up the final sequence. Lee (14 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) looked to pass, but the Patriots had most of his options well defended. He feinted and hesitated, finally scooting around Allen to the basket with three seconds left.
"I knew he wanted to get something going to the basket," said Allen, who led all scorers with 20 points. "He did a great job. The hesitation stood me up for a second. I should have fouled him, put him on the line. He made a tough basket, so congratulations to him. Good luck going for the championship."
Mason's loss was particularly jarring, given its offensive efficiency. The Patriots led by 12 at halftime, shot 79 percent from the field in the second half (15-for-19) and still lost. But that's because they committed 20 turnovers, and Northeastern was even more efficient.
From the end of the first half, the Huskies scored on 30 of their final 38 possessions. They shot 61 percent from the field and made 15 of 19 free throws in the second half.
"When I have two senior guards on the floor," Coen said of Lee and Joel Smith, "they know the set calls that we like to go at the end of the clock and the game, to get the ball in the right people's hands. We were lucky enough to get the stop and came down and executed. These guys put the game in their hands and did a great job of it."
JMU's Matt Brady took a similar approach with Moore.
"I'm not the smartest guy in the room," Brady said, "but I know you're going to keep the ball in Devon's hands. Not only can he make the play, he can make the pass, he can make the shot, but he's going to make the free throws. He's a fifth-year senior, he's been in this situation so many times, that we're going to let him make the play."
Down by one point in the in the final 15 seconds, Moore drove to the basket and drew a foul on Delaware big man Jamelle Hagins — a questionable call that will be forever disputed by the Blue Hens. Hagins told reporters afterward that he swiped the ball cleanly.
But given the chance, Moore went to the foul line and sank both free throws with four seconds left. Delaware (19-14) got one last shot, but Devon Saddler's long, rushed 3-pointer from beyond the top of the key was wide at the buzzer.
"I've been here before," Moore said. "I've missed a lot of them, too, so I'm thankful to make them."
JMU survived the Blue Hens' size advantage by defending the perimeter and doubling Hagins whenever possible. Delaware had a 45-27 rebound edge and 23 second-chance points from offensive rebounds. But the Blue Hens' guard trio of Saddler, Jarvis Threatt and Kyle Anderson shot a combined 9-for-37 and 3-for-15 from 3-point range.
The Blue Hens also took issue with a call that Threatt stepped or dribbled out-of-bounds as he received an inbounds pass with Delaware up 57-56 with 11 seconds remaining, which gave JMU and Moore the final chance. Hens' coach Monte' Ross was adamant that Threatt had not stepped out of bounds.
"Give Delaware a lot of credit," Brady said. "I thought they played great and for a long stretch of the second half, I thought they probably outplayed us. But it's a 40-minute game and we worked to the very end."