Monday, December 7, 2009

The Day After: Boston University Terriers 63, Bucknell University Bison 53

For 20 minutes, the Terriers provided 1,227 spectators with their best impersonation of the team everyone expected BU to field this season. Scott Brittain was sidelined, as was Valdas Sirutis, but the Terriers' first half gave everyone a glimpse of what this team can do when in form. Shots found the net more than occassionally, the passing was reasonably crisp, and whenever Bucknell started to think about offense, the BU defense procured turnovers and ripped down defensive rebounds. Bucknell's inability to hit the Charles from a boat was a factor, to be sure, but the Terriers were deserving of a substantial lead when the halftime buzzer sounded.

Three minutes and ten seconds into the second half, a 16-point lead was reduced to five. Boston University head coach Patrick Chambers called a timeout. The Terriers had lost control. Not only were things going wrong, but every strength the Terriers had exhibited while building their lead had vanished. Intelligent passes were replaced by fruitless drives to the hoop, yielding nothing. Defenders' pressure was being broken and nobody was left to close out on shooters.

The Terriers recovered and secured a win against an inferior opponent. Bucknell never managed to pull level or take a lead, and Carlos Strong and B.J. Bailey made some big plays down the stretch to give the home team a much-needed win.

The result is the most important thing, but there's plenty of additional information to be acquired by looking at how the result was obtained. How much weight should be placed on the Terriers' first half performance compared to their struggles early in the second half?

Bucknell may not be one of the tougher opponents on the Terriers schedule -- the Bison gave Binghamton its first win last Friday -- but BU doubling up on Bucknell in the first half was easily one of the Terriers' best halves of basketball to date. The only comparable halves are the first half from BU's game against Georgia Tech on November 22, and possibly the second half from BU's game against Indiana two days prior. Nothing else comes particularly close.

The first three minutes of the second half were extremely poor for the Terriers. There's no escaping that. What's more important, though, is how BU responded. Jake O'Brien made a free throw, and after both teams missed a couple of 3-pointers, Corey Lowe found O'Brien with a pair of beautifully executed passes leading to dunks before Bucknell could mount any defense. The lead was stretched back to ten.

Lowe came off the bench yesterday after resting his foot all week, and while it wasn't his best performance, six assists helped to counterbalance his five turnovers. Lowe finished with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting. He hit both his free throws.

When Lowe played under control, he was effective at the offensive end, creating opportunities for others and making intelligent decisions. When the senior guard freelanced, trying to beat four Bucknell defenders by himself or reaching around a Bucknell player to launch a pass behind the defender's back, the results weren't pretty. Lowe's prodigious talent means these ill-advised attempts occasionally succeed. When they don't, which is more typically the case, offensive possessions are wasted.

John Holland had an unusually quiet day. Coupled with another up-and-down performance from Lowe, this would normally indicate a rough afternoon for the Terriers, but O'Brien and Strong were excellent on the offensive end.

Twice, late in the second half, Bucknell pulled within three points. The first time, Strong doubled the Terrier lead with a triple near the left corner, then added a layup on the break after a Bailey rebound and Morris feed. The second time, with just over two minutes left in regulation, Morris found Strong in the same corner.

The nail in the coffin, though, was on BU's next offensive possession. Strong, playing the 3, launched a bomb from the right wing. The shot was long and started to fall off to the left, but Bailey flew in and elevated, redirecting the ball through the cylinder. It was the freshman's first points of the game in his first career start. Bucknell started fouling at that point; Strong and Bailey made 5-of-7 free throws down the stretch to lock it up.

Should the Terriers have put this game away earlier? Certainly. BU's offense was competent in the first half, but a bit more firepower would have buried Bucknell before halftime. A better all-around effort to start the second half would have cut Bucknell's run off before it threatened the Terrier lead. And more persistent offensive rebounding -- Bucknell grabbed 80 percent of BU's missed shots -- would have given BU some extra opportunities for easy baskets.

But with two players out and a third player injured, BU led wire-to-wire at the less friendly of its two venues and snapped a two-game losing streak -- and looked like a very good team for portions of the game. There's more to like than there is to dislike.

-- Jake O'Brien. O'Brien gave BU an excellent, balanced performance. The sophomore forward led all players in points (17), rebounds (8), and blocks (2, tied with Bucknell's Mike Muscala), providing scoring from beyond the arc, in the post, and in transition. While Bison defensive attention limited O'Brien to five second-half points, those five points were huge, extending the BU lead to 10 points after Bucknell's 11-0 run to start the second half.
-- Carlos Strong. Strong was the finisher for BU, scoring all 11 of his points in the last 5:25. The rest of his box score line wasn't particularly impressive, but when the Terriers needed big plays late in the game, Strong produced over and over.
-- First half pressure defense. Bucknell had 10 first-half turnovers, and most of them were the forced variety. Tyler Morris had five steals and almost had a few more. The Bison were having trouble making shots, but more often than not the Terriers threatened to take away the ball before a shot could even be attempted.

-- John Holland. The junior forward scored his last two points of the game at 18:13 of the second half. Against Bucknell, the Terriers found a way to survive without late-game contributions from their offensive leader, and Holland was kept busy on defense working against the Bison bigs. Still, BU needs more than 10 points from its best offensive player.
-- Offensive rebounding. Bucknell is not a good defensive rebounding team, yet the Terriers only recovered seven of 35 possible offensive rebounds.
-- Corey Lowe's turnovers. Six assists are nice. Five turnovers are not. Lowe's teammates combined for just seven, a good figure at almost any pace. If Lowe can get his turnovers under control, his teammates' ability to take care of the ball will come to the forefront -- but with Lowe giving the ball away repeatedly, BU's ball security will have trouble exceeding average.

-- Brendan Sullivan. Yes, that Brendan Sullivan. The senior rejoined the team earlier this week after devoting most of the first semester to working on his academics. While Sullivan isn't an impact player, he adds some much-needed depth to the Terrier frontcourt. Chambers has demonstrated a willingness to play walk-ons in situations where he thinks they can contribute, giving first-half playing time to Tunde Agboola in multiple games, so expect Sullivan to contribute at some point.

Terriers hold off Bison, 63-53
Strong makes most of minutes off the bench

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