By René Reyes/DFP Staff
HAMDEN, Conn. – The Boston University men’s basketball team endured a rough December, but luckily for it, the most grueling part of its schedule is now over.
Having faced the likes of the University of Texas, Cleveland State University and then-No. 24 Harvard University thus far this season, BU had its will tested again when it capped off its uniquely tough non-conference slate – one arranged by predecessor Patrick Chambers, no less – in a Saturday road matchup with Quinnipiac University.
Despite shooting 32.1 percent (17-of-53) overall and being held without a field goal for the final 6:40 of regulation, the Bobcats overcame a second-half deficit due to their clutch free-throw shooting late and escaped with a 59-53 win over the Terriers before a New Year’s Eve crowd of 2,217 at the TD Bank Sports Center.
Senior guard Darryl Partin dropped a game-high 19 points and snared nine rebounds and senior co-captain Matt Griffin contributed 11 for BU (4-10), which was sent by Quinnipiac (8-5) to its sixth consecutive defeat in the month of December alone.
Yet first-year BU coach Joe Jones is certain that this non-conference loss will only benefit his squad for what lies ahead in league play, as it prepares for its America East Conference opener at the University of Vermont on Jan. 5.
“It’s gonna pay off for us,” Jones said. “This game is gonna pay off for us in the long run. It was a tough game. We lost it, but I really feel like we’re getting better, and we’re doing some good things.”
Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore, whose team has seen what the America East has to offer in the University of Hartford and Vermont during the non-conference portion of its schedule this year, could not help but be impressed by the level of competition BU has encountered since the 2011-12 campaign began.
“The schedule they’ve played for a mid-major program is absolutely brutal,” Moore said. “I look at their 13 games coming into us, and you start saying, ‘This is the hardest game. These are the middle-type challenges. This is the easiest game.’ … They took on a murderous non-conference schedule. That team, I would assume, is only gonna be stronger for it.”
Freshman forward Ousmane Drame posted his second career double-double with 10 points and 14 boards and picked up the slack offensively for the Bobcats, who were without guard Jamee Jackson (9.8 points per game) and received a mere four points on 2-of-7 shooting from forward Ike Azotam.
Coming off a dispiriting 17-point loss at La Salle University this past Thursday, BU wasted no time jumping on Quinnipiac, which boasted the nation’s second-ranked rebounding team at 44.8 boards per game behind coach Roy Williams’ University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
The interior play of senior forward Patrick Hazel and senior center Jeff Pelage, who combined for nine points and nine rebounds in the first half, and Griffin’s two 3-pointers sported the Terriers a seemingly comfortable 32-19 advantage at the break.
But it was BU’s defense, which held Quinnipiac to 30.8 percent shooting from the field in the opening frame, that deserved most of the credit for the halftime lead.
“I thought we’d come out the gate pretty good,” Jones said. “The Villanova [University] game we played very good for a half. The first 12 minutes of the Harvard game were very good. I don’t know if we’ve been slow out of the gate, but I did think we had some extra energy defensively, which was good. I thought the last two games we’ve done a really good job defending.”
In the opposing locker room, Moore delivered a short and pointed message to his players.
“He basically looked at us, especially the bigs, and told us that we needed to pick it up,” Drame said. “Motivation words and all that other stuff. That’s exactly what we did.”
The Bobcats heeded their bench boss’ words and emerged from the tunnel with a more determined attitude on offense after a sloppy display in the first half (eight turnovers). They drilled back-to-back-to-back treys and punctuated their 11-2 run on an Azotam breakaway dunk at 3:30 that cut the deficit to 34-30.
With its double-digit cushion slowly evaporating, BU employed the Hack-a-Shaq technique by fouling the 6-foot-9 Drame, who missed four freebies in a row with the opportunity to put Quinnipiac ahead.
Drame, a 68.2 percent foul shooter on the season, took BU’s strategy personally.
“Especially for somebody like me, I’m usually not the type to miss a lot of free throws in games,” said Drame, who scored all 10 of his points in the second half. “But today I was about 4-for-11, 4-for-12. That wasn’t working really well. I just gotta work on that.”
After a foul committed by sophomore forward Travis Robinson, guard James Johnson hit both free throws to give the Bobcats their first edge of the game at 43-42 with 5:59 remaining. His makes from the charity stripe finally roused a dormant TD Bank Sports Center crowd.
At one juncture in the second half, the officiating crew of Dave DeYong, Paul Faia and Gary Pucino called 10 straight fouls on BU, and Quinnipiac capitalized, draining 19 of its final 22 free throws to capture its sixth win in the last seven contests.
Even with all the fouls whistled against them, the Terriers still had their chances in the game’s closing minutes, but Partin clanked three free throws and had both his shots underneath the basket blocked by Drame with 26 and 22 ticks left.
A flagrant foul on Robinson and four Quinnipiac freebies later, and BU found itself on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Not one to blame the referees, Jones said the Terriers failed to control their own destiny down the stretch.
“I’m not gonna pass comment on that,” Jones said of the officiating. “I really think we have to control the things we can control. We kept plugging away. A couple of foul shots here and there and it’s a different game. So even with that being said, we had opportunities.”
Jones, however, is looking forward to the second season that is the America East. The return of sophomore point guard D.J. Irving, who missed his third straight game with a concussion, should provide BU with a much-needed boost just in time for its first taste of conference action at Vermont on Thursday.
“I think our guys are fine,” Jones said. “Going through what they went through last year, knowing that it was a really tough non-league schedule, probably one of the toughest of any team at our level that we played. I thought we learned a lot about our team. Now it’s another season. It’s a new season.
“There’s no team in our league that came closing to playing the kind of competition that we played against. We played our last three games without arguably our best player. We have a chance now to get D.J. Irving back, and I feel good about where we are right now.”