By Sarah Kirkpatrick/DFP Staff
As the Boston University men’s basketball team ran off the court at Agganis Arena following a 91-70 Patriot League semifinal victory over the U.S. Military Academy Saturday, the Terriers stopped to high-five and chest-bump a group of faithful fans. It was clear what was on their minds: One win to go.
BU (24-9) beat Army (15-16) in both of their previous matchups this season, but both were very close — one, an 86-81 overtime win for the Terriers on Jan. 29, and the other a 71-70 nail-biting BU victory on Feb. 26.
Army appeared to be overwhelming the Terriers (24-9) early on in Saturday’s game, with the Black Knights’ lead extending to 8-2 just a couple minutes in. Junior forward Malik Thomas and sophomore forward Justin Alston entered the game for senior forward Dom Morris and sophomore forward Nathan Dieudonné following a TV timeout. Thomas made an immediate impact, cutting the score in half, 8-4.
Army’s Mo Williams Jr. responded quickly to extend the lead to 10-4, but a stepback jumper from Thomas added another two for BU. On the other end of the floor on the next possession, Thomas grabbed a rebound and was subsequently fouled.
An Irving three just a little while later tied things up at 13 apiece with 12:23 remaining. Williams made a two for Army, but Watson tied the game up again with a two.
Just seconds later, though, Morris stepped back and hit a 3-pointer for BU’s first lead of the game at 18-15. Army made a two-point basket on the next possession, but Thomas’s three right after that pushed the Terrier lead to 21-17.
After senior captain D.J. Irving twisted around a defender and flipped it up for a two, he followed that up by another deep two to push the score to 25-20. Alston tipped it in for a score on the next possession, pushing the BU lead to 28-20.
BU maintained the lead for the remainder of the half. A pair of Army layups in the last two minutes cut the score to 39-35, with a last-second Army 3-point attempt falling short.
Things got a bit shakier for the Terriers after that as a layup from sophomore Kevin Ferguson and a jumper by classmate Kyle Wilson tied things up at 39 apiece.
It would take about eight minutes of too-close-for-comfort play before the Terriers finally flipped the switch. In that stretch, the Black Knights absolutely dominated the offensive glass, including one sequence where Army nabbed four consecutive offensive rebounds.
“That was excruciating watching that but it kind of summed up where the game was at that point,” said BU coach Jones regarding the four-rebound stretch. “You've got to give them a lot of credit. They came in here and I thought they outplayed us in terms of getting to loose balls and rebounds. It just seemed like we were in quicksand so we got into them and the next time out, our guys stepped up.”
A pair of free throws by Army forward Tanner Plomb brought his team within 55-50 with 11:36 remaining. That was the closest it would be for the rest of the game.
A layup from Morris extended the BU lead to seven. Freshman guard Cedric Hankerson drained a three after that on a perfect dish from Watson, giving the Terriers a double-digit margin. Watson soon made a jumper to push the lead to 12, and Thomas nabbed a layup to make it 14.
At that point, the game was all Terriers. The exclamation point on the victory came when Thomas brought the ball up the court, spinning around a defender and missing a basket, but Alston was there to slam it home to make the score 77-59 with 5:21 remaining. Two minutes later, sophomore guard John Papale sank a three on a pass from Watson to push the score to 86-62. A final layup from senior guard D.J. Irving with 1:36 left, followed by a three from Richard Brown, made the final score 91-70.
Five players ended the game in double digits — Irving (20), Morris (16), Thomas (15), Papale (14) and Watson (10).
“Our depth has been like that all year,” Jones said. “It's just been different guys. Cedric Hankerson has been involved in that, John Papale has been involved with that, Travis Robinson, Justin Alston in the first half. Malik was terrific. DJ was outstanding in terms of scoring the ball and we were just able to control the game a little bit at that time, but that's been the way it's been all year.”
Watson’s 17 assists were a school record, a Patriot League Tournament record and the most in NCAA Division I play this season.
“When I woke up this morning, I felt like this was going to be a 20-point win for us,” Watson said. “I felt like the first couple of games [against Army], we didn't have our best games defensively. We didn't do the things that we wanted to do. We didn't stick to our principles and we struggled tonight with the rebounding but once we put the pressure on and we're consistent, we're the best defensive team in this league, numbers-wise.
“We come out and play with that energy and that focus, for whatever stretch, it just adds more fuel to the fire because our offense is kicking and then our defense if kicking and then it's just getting them out of rhythm and that gets the crowd going and then everything is going our way from there.”
The victory propels the Terriers into the Patriot League Championship game, which BU will host at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night. If the Terriers can get past second-seeded American University, they will earn an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.
“These guys are ballplayers,” Jones said. “They've been through this. Since they've been little, they've played in tournament games and championship games. They've been MVPs, All-Stars. They're used to the pressure of what this is all about and I think they're stepping up to the plate and making everybody on my staff, including me, look good right now.”
Irving noted the importance of staying focused on the task at hand and not letting the giant margin of victory get to the Terriers’ heads.
“We just have to keep getting better, take it one day at a time, take it one practice at a time,” Irving said. “Our next practice, we've just got to fight everyday, get better every possession, every day, every practice, just keep getting better until we're champions.
“... We've been waiting for this. We've been waiting to unleash what we have here at BU for the past two years and now I feel like it is our time.”