By Craig Meyer/DFP Staff
Heading into its last game of the season against University of Vermont, it would have been very easy and even borderline understandable for the Boston University men’s basketball team to fold.
The Terriers were playing against the top team in the America East Conference in one of the conference’s most hostile road environments, a place in which BU had not won since Feb. 2008. On top of all that, the team was without its top scorer in senior forward John Holland, who was sidelined nursing an injured left ankle.
Yet none of those obstacles seemed to matter for BU as it worked back from a nine-point second half deficit to knock off Vermont 66-64 in overtime on Sunday.
Junior guard Darryl Partin posted a game-high 23 points on 8-of-20 shooting in Holland’s absence.
But it was a pair of freshmen, guard D.J. Irving and forward/center Dom Morris, who not only helped BU prevail in a relatively meaningless game – both teams had already clinched their respective seeds for the AE Tournament – but also provided a hopeful glimpse into the program’s future.
Irving scored 18 points – 11 of which came in the second half – on 6-of-9 shooting and dished out a team-high four assists, playing an expanded role for a team that desperately needed the help with the absence of both Holland and junior forward Jake O’Brien, who is out for the rest of the season with a foot injury.
“There’s no doubt that D.J., since John’s been out, has shouldered more of the scoring, and we need him to do that, we need him to be a threat out there,” said BU coach Pat Chambers. “He’s the straw that stirs the drink – he makes us go.”
Meanwhile, Morris, who has struggled since coming back from a non-basketball related surgery in January, recorded a game-high 11 rebounds to go along with seven points. It was Morris’ second straight game with double-digit rebounds, having already pulled down 11 boards in BU’s 53-51 win over Binghamton University on Feb. 24.
Despite bringing in a season-high seven-game win streak, the Terriers (18-13, 12-4) struggled early against the Catamounts (22-7, 13-3), a team that has traditionally given them trouble, especially in the confines of Patrick Gym. Vermont led for all but 45 seconds of the first half, opening up a lead that got as high as 10.
The Catamounts took a 28-22 lead into the locker room at halftime, but suffered a critical loss with an injury to forward Evan Fjeld, the team’s leading scorer, that forced him to be on crutches for the rest of the game. Vermont had already been playing without guard Brendan Bald, who was also nursing an injury he suffered in practice.
BU capitalized on the opportunity of playing against a team without its preseason all-AE selection, opening up the second half on a 16-10 run that evened the score at 38. From that point forward, neither team would hold a lead of more than six points.
After a Partin layup, BU held a 57-53 lead with 1:57 remaining, but Vermont clawed back and forced the game into overtime.
Neither team was fully able to assert control for much of the overtime period, but behind strong inside play and a 4-of-6 effort from the free throw line, the Terriers opened up a five-point lead that would have been the final margin of victory, had it not been for a 3-pointer from forward Luke Apfeld right before the buzzer.
Limited offensively without their two preseason all-conference selections, the Terriers outplayed the Catamounts in two areas in which Vermont customarily overwhelms conference opponents: defense and rebounding, two facets of the game which Chambers routinely stresses.
BU, aided partially by the absence of Fjeld, was able to outrebound Vermont by a 35-31 margin, a statistic that proved to be critical in the visitors’ winning effort.
“When we defend and rebound, we can beat anybody,” Chambers said. “Adversity has struck us with John and Jake both out, so are we going to step up or are we going to feel sorry for ourselves and make excuses?
“These guys are really showing maturity and saying, ‘You know what? We’re good enough, we can beat anybody any given day if we play hard and defend and rebound.’”
Amidst all the joy and excitement of Sunday’s win, Holland’s absence remains of absolute importance to the Terriers heading into the conference tournament. Chambers noted that Holland remains “day-to-day,” but also said he is hopeful Holland will be back for the Terriers’ Mar. 5 game against University of New Hampshire in the AE Tournament quarterfinals.
The win gave BU a final conference record of 12-4, the team’s best AE record since 2005. But Sunday’s win was not only the culmination of a successful conference run, but also a chance to prepare and improve going forward into the conference tournament, a two-week stretch that could provide BU with a chance to achieve its ultimate goal – a coveted spot in the NCAA Tournament.