By René Reyes/DFP Staff
University of New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion couldn’t have been more accurate in his assessment of the Boston University men’s basketball team’s mentality as the America East Conference slate nears its conclusion.
“I don’t know this, but I know [BU coach] Joe [Jones] well and it seems like they’re playing like, ‘O.K., you know what? We can’t be in the tournament. Let’s just try to beat everybody on the way out,’” Herrion said. “I don’t know if that’s what their attitude is. … They’re playing great. They really are.”
Freshman guard Maurice Watson Jr. took it a step further, just minutes after he ran out the clock at the end of the Terriers’ 68-56 win over the Wildcats at Case Gymnasium on Sunday.
“Every game from here on out and as conference play started has been personal for us,” said Watson Jr., whose team has been barred from this year’s America East Tournament after it had accepted an invitation to join the Patriot League for the 2013-14 campaign.
“We just feel like we’re getting the short end of the stick because we’re making the change.
“We want to leave them with a sour taste in their mouth when they play against the Terriers.”
Watson Jr. recorded an unconventional double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds for an undersized guard who lists himself as 5-foot-10 and a half when he has shoes on.
Junior forward Dom Morris chipped in 13 points and sophomore forward Malik Thomas and junior guard D.J. Irving each scored 10 points to buoy BU (15-11, 9-4 America East) to its seventh win in eight games.
No conference foe is experiencing as torrid a stretch as the Terriers are on at this juncture of the season, according to Herrion, whose Wildcats (7-17, 3-9 America East) failed to build off last Wednesday’s overtime victory against the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
“They’re dangerous,” Herrion said. “They’ve won seven out of eight, nine out of 11. They’re hot. I told our guys that coming in that they’re playing better or as well as anybody in this league right now. They’re good.”
Irving helped Morris establish himself in the paint right from the get-go, feeding BU’s other tri-captain for a pair of nifty reverse layups during the first couple offensive sequences.
Morris tallied nine of his 13 points in the opening frame.
“The thing that’s happened with Dom is that he’s developed and matured,” Jones said. “I thought last year he showed some signs but wasn’t consistent at all. This year, he started slowly but now he’s just in a really good place. He’s really bought in. He had an unbelievable offseason with his nutrition and changed his diet.
“He’s moving a lot better than he did last year. He’s played like an all-league player. He really has. He’s been terrific.”
Thomas and freshman forward Nathan Dieudonne both sunk back-to-back corner pocket 3-pointers in the first half to push the Terriers’ lead to 29-12.
With the seconds dwindling down on the first half, Jones clamored for a defensive stop on New Hampshire’s final offensive possession.
And he got just what he was screaming for on the bench: junior forward Travis Robinson swatted guard Chris Orozco’s shot seconds right as the buzzer expired, sending BU into the intermission with a 34-17 advantage and its bench boss fist pumps.
Morris returned the favor at the 0:53 mark when he found Irving on a backdoor cut for an uncontested lay-up for BU’s first bucket of the second half.
The 6-foot Irving, who shot the ball nine times, corralled nine rebounds against a lengthy New Hampshire squad. His rebounding efforts have had a trickle effect on Watson Jr., his dynamic backcourt mate who snared 10 boards himself.
“I think D.J. rebounding has helped Mo go get rebounds,” Jones said. “D.J.’s been unbelievable on the glass and Mo sees that and he wants to be in there, too. It’s been great. When you’re good, it’s because your better players are doing it.”
There’s been plenty of room in the Terriers’ backcourt for both Irving and Watson Jr. to coexist and display their unique skill sets without interfering in the other’s game.
“I was hesitant to come here because I didn’t how I was going to play with a guy who plays my same position,” Watson Jr. said. “Am I going to get minutes? He was pushing for me to come here so hard and he was just putting it out there that we can be the fastest backcourt. We can just change the game here. We can put our school back on the map.
“Just hearing how much he wanted me to come, it says a lot. When you’re a junior and you see a guy coming in who plays the same position as you, you’re kind of hesitant. You’re like, ‘I don’t want this guy to come in and take over.’ He’s definitely helped me out.
“It’s been way more positive, barely any negativity. He’s been such a good mentor to me.”
Watson Jr., who also had six assists on the afternoon, found freshman forward John Papale for a spot-up trey that extended BU’s cushion to 20 points in that final session.
Robinson provided the signature highlight late in the contest, taking a bounce pass from Watson Jr. and soaring in for the one-handed dunk that stretched the Terriers’ edge to 55-36.
New Hampshire center Chris Pelcher poured in all of his team-high 15 points in the second half.
He bolstered a Wildcats squad that more than doubled its offensive production in those final 20 minutes of regulation and managed to trim the Terriers’ edge to 12 points at one point with less than three minutes to play.
“When we’re playing well, they tend to get cute and relax and take the easy way out,” Jones said. “It just takes a couple of possessions for another team to get some momentum. They’re trying to beat you, man. Once they get momentum, then you try to play hard. Now it’s hard. If you’re just consistent and keep them at bay, it makes it easier now for us to expand our lead but we have a hard time doing that.”
Even for a team that had been presented with an enormous obstacle to making the NCAA Tournament since it was announced in July that BU wouldn’t be participating in postseason conference play, Watson said that the Terriers have never lost sight of their in-season goals.
“You kind of have to play with the hand that you’re dealt,” Watson Jr. said. “Coming in from day one, the best thing to keep everybody working was to be the toughest competitors that we can be. We all play hard. We all play tough. We still want to be able to make noise.
“We want to be able to prove to everyone that we’re a good enough team to make a postseason tournament without the conference tournament. To be able to get better, use this year to learn, to get experience and learn how to play when the chips are on your shoulder. … You’re always going out there to play for something.”