University of New Hampshire junior center Dane DiLiegro had a monster game when BU traveled to Durham for the Terriers' first meeting with the Wildcats on Jan. 7. The 6-foot-9 post player notched a double-double, putting up 20 points and 16 rebounds. Although the Terriers managed to escape with a hard-fought 60-56 victory, UNH held a lead with less than six minutes to play largely due to DiLiegro's superlative performance.
Contrast January's game with the Terriers' 69-47 victory last night, and the difference is obvious. New Hampshire's formidable interior presence was held scoreless. Without functional offense from the low block, the Wildcat offense was forced to rely on contested jumpers and ill-advised drives into the heart of a swarming BU defense.
Sophomore center Jeff Pelage was the Terrier defender most often tasked with guarding DiLiegro. While DiLiegro didn't help his cause, repeatedly failing to execute after receiving the ball down low, Pelage regularly made a point of confronting his opponent before he could close the distance between himself and the rim.
When DiLiegro received an entry pass, help defenders were aware and worked to limit the ballhandler's options. Most importantly, the entire Terrier frontcourt fought to prevent second-chance opportunities for the Wildcat big man, ripping down rebounds and doing so without fouling – DiLiegro attempted just two free throws, missing both.
Every elite America East opponent the Terriers may face has at least one notable interior threat. Limiting the effectiveness of those threats will be a major key to any March success – neutralizing DiLiegro is a step in the right direction.
The Terriers have been highly efficient at the free-throw line all season. Prior to last night's game, BU had converted on 71.9 percent of its free throw attempts, the second-best figure in America East – Albany, at 72.5 percent, ranked first. The Terriers have also been leveraging that skill by reaching the foul line with regularity. Not including last night's data, BU has shot more than 40 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, also good for second among America East's nine conference members.
The Wildcats are not a particularly foul-prone team, so the Terriers had to make a concerted effort in order to get to the line. BU did just that, shooting 33 times at the charity stripe and finding net on 26 of those attempts. Those 26 made free throws mark the Terriers' highest free throw total on their home court since March 10, 2003, in an America East Tournament semifinal game played at Case Gym.
UNH attempted to duplicate the Terriers' performance at the free-throw line, attempting 25 free throws. The Wildcats, however, made just 15 of those attempts, including a cold stretch early in the second half that contributed to New Hampshire scoring just five points during the 10 minute period following halftime. That, coupled with turnovers and opportunistic play by the Terriers, prompted an extended BU run, first building a lead, then extending it.
At the center of the Terriers' free throw explosion were two familiar faces: Jake O'Brien and John Holland. The two forwards combined to attempt 22 free throws, making 18 of them and fueling the BU attack. After consecutive disappointing offensive outings, those uncontested shots provided the Terriers with a golden opportunity to generate some easy points – points that ultimately led to a runaway victory.
Prior to last night's game, the Terriers had played seven conference road games in a 23-day stretch, one of the most demanding travel schedules any team will face. The benefit of the Terriers' road journeys, however, is right around the corner: tomorrow's trip to the University at Albany marks the last road conference game BU will play before the conference tournament in Hartford.
The Terriers have four home conference games remaining, including three critical matchups against Vermont, Binghamton, and Maine, in that order. The Maine game, in particular, is important for several reasons: in addition to its status as the last regular season game of the year, it arrives one week after BU's BracketBuster matchup with Delaware and will likely have a major impact on postseason seeding. A major gap has opened up between the fifth and sixth-place teams, increasing the incentive for BU to finish in a top-three position and avoid the dangerous No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup.
The Terriers' performance at home to date certainly portends well for the stretch run. After dropping the opening game of conference play to Stony Brook, BU has won its last three home games by a combined 55 points. The Terriers are also 5-1 in their last five games at Agganis Arena. Any talk of an Agganis Arena curse can be dismissed – if anything, BU finally appears ready to capitalize on its favorable February schedule.