By John Barone
For extended stretches of Tuesday's game, the Boston University men’s basketball team showed exactly why the coaches of the America East Conference tabbed it as the preseason favorite to win the league.
Then, with victory just seconds away from BU’s grasp, the University of Vermont pulled the rug out from under its rival’s seemingly special night.
Senior forward Marqus Blakely capped a 21-point, 12-rebound performance by assisting on the go-ahead basket with 9.4 seconds remaining, and the Catamounts eked out a 76-75 win over the Terriers before a crowd of 968 at Agganis Arena.
Junior forward John Holland poured in a game-high 29 points and senior guard Carlos Strong added 19 for BU (13-12, 8-5 AE), which has lost eight of its last nine meetings against Vermont (18-8, 9-3).
“They executed down the stretch. We didn’t,” BU coach Patrick Chambers said. “We were trading baskets and not getting stops, and you can’t do that against one of the best teams in the league. We need to learn from this and not put our heads down.”
BU called a timeout after Blakely hit junior forward Evan Fjeld for a backdoor layup that put the Catamounts on top. But with four seconds left, senior guard Corey Lowe dribbled the ball off his left foot and out of bounds before the Terriers could attempt a final shot.
“I told him to keep his head up and not worry about it,” Chambers said of Lowe, who walked off the court in tears after the game. “That’s life. He needs to learn from it and move on.”
“We played hard. That’s all I can say,” Strong said. “We just made a few mistakes.”
Trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, BU trimmed Vermont’s advantage to 38-32 at halftime on the strength of a 29-14 run.
When the Terriers emerged from their locker room, they did so as the explosive offensive unit America East opponents fear most.
Holland and Strong combined for 30 points in a second session that featured six lead changes and 60 percent shooting from the Terriers. Strong’s lay-in at 13:10 gave BU a 48-46 edge, its first since the game’s opening minute.
"Offensively, BU's talent is ridiculous," Vermont coach Mike Lonergan said. "There's a reason why they were picked to win it."
The Terriers assumed a four-point cushion of 75-71 on a layup from senior guard Tyler Morris with 1:05 to play.
A double-teamed Blakely then dished out a pair of game-deciding passes. The two-time conference Player of the Year set up senior guard Nick Vier’s trey with 52 seconds remaining and, following a missed jumper from Holland, fed Fjeld for the go-ahead lay-in.
"I saw that one defender was on me and the other one was coming," Blakely said. "Evan did the right thing cutting to the basket, and I saw him."
“We didn’t want to double Blakely there,” Chambers said. “Our guys got tied up and we lost [Fjeld]. We have to work on communicating."
Two of Blakely’s three assists came in the contest’s final 52 seconds.
“He’s a very talented, unselfish guy who does whatever it takes to win,” Chambers said. “He’s not a guy who just tries to get his on the offensive end. He’s most effective when he’s sharing the basketball.”
Presented with one last chance to respond, the Terriers instead succumbed to another breakdown in execution. A harassed Morris brought the ball up the floor and found Lowe, who lost it in front of the BU bench.
“It’s something we work on every day in practice. I don’t know what happened,” Chambers said. “We were running a back-screen for Tyler and he took the ball up. I don’t know if Tyler thought the heat was on, but he gave it up. Corey took the ball, so I’m not sure how he got in that position.”
Chambers didn’t hesitate when asked if he considered Tuesday’s loss a wasted opportunity or step forward.
“We missed a chance,” Chambers said. “I thought that, with the way we were playing collectively as a group and the confidence we were gaining, we were the better team. I felt like all the pieces were almost together.
“I don’t want to have moral victories. We’re a Division I basketball team. You might do that stuff when you’re younger, in high school. But on this level, we can’t be satisfied with getting close. We’ve still got to win a big one.”
Game notes: Holland left the contest with a bloody nose early in the second period after taking an elbow to the face from Fjeld. BU trainers treated the America East's leading scorer and he returned two minutes later sporting a bandage on his nose. ... Morris' seven assists marked a career high. ... The Terriers missed 7-of-16 free throws. ... Vermont's scored 18 bench points to BU’s six.