BU escapes Army, makes Patriot League a 2-team race

Boston_University_Army_Basketball_Agganis_Arena_Beanpot_HoopsAs John Templon of Big Apple Buckets discovered last month, Army players substitute more frequently than any other team in the nation. So as Wednesday night’s game at Agganis Arena went into overtime — after Army had erased a 22-point BU lead in the second half — it might have seemed that the Black Knights, fresher and playing better down the stretch, would have an edge. But in the extra period, BU won with one of its best assets: airtight defense.

Protecting a one-point lead with 1:30 left in overtime, Army point guard Dylan Cox brought the ball up the left side of the court and started to get into an offensive set — when he was rudely surprised by D.J. Irving, who reached around Cox’s body and poked the ball free. Only a desperate foul from behind prevented a fast-break layup; Irving made the free throws anyway.

“Throughout the game, I saw he kept turning his back on that play. I was thinking about getting it a couple times in the first half, but I just wasn’t fast enough,” Irving said. “I just anticipated that last one.”

Army remained within three points, but after suffering frequent breakdowns in the second half, BU’s defense had one of its best possessions of the game. In a nearly minute-long sequence that included two offensive rebounds, the Terriers never allowed an open Knight to touch the ball; eventually, Kevin Ferguson’s kick-out pass was deflected off of an Army player and out of bounds — the visitors’ 23rd turnover of the game — and the threat was denied.

Irving gave the Terriers some breathing room with two more free throws; he was 14-for-14 from the charity stripe for the game, more than half of those coming down the stretch. BU escaped with an 86-81 victory, finishing its first-ever trip through the Patriot League at 8-1.

“I knew going into the game that [Army] was going to rotate their guys in. But I think we’ve got a pretty good bench,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “We can play nine guys — nine guys is enough dudes. If you can’t win with nine, you’re in trouble.”

The Terriers have potent offensive players — Maurice Watson, Jr. is one of the nation’s most electric mid-major point guards, Dom Morris can be a force in the paint and D.J. Irving does a bit of everything — but, relatively speaking, their calling card this season has been defense. BU entered Wednesday scoring a pedestrian 1.04 points per possession in Patriot League play, but they had held opponents to a conference-low 0.96.

That defense was what gave the Terriers their big lead in the first place. Army was scoreless for the game’s first four minutes and managed just 18 points on 34 first-half possessions; the hosts excelled in all facets of defense, holding the Knights to 33 percent shooting, two free-throw attempts, two offensive rebounds and 11 turnovers.

The tide changed quickly after halftime, however, as Army needed just six minutes to eclipse its first-half point total. The Patriot League’s fastest-paced offense (by far) initiated early action to beat BU’s halfcourt schemes, and while it still turned the ball over several times, those were mostly dead-ball miscues, instead of steals that could be turned into fast breaks. (Each team committed 23 turnovers in 84 possessions, including a ton of unforced errors.)

Most importantly, Army killed BU on the offensive glass after halftime, and it suddenly became lights-out from deep range. The Black Knights, not a good three-point shooting team overall this season, made seven of 10 second-half attempts from beyond the arc; the last one, from Dylan Cox, tied the game for the first time with just 90 seconds remaining.

Irving answered with a pull-up jumper from the free-throw line, and in fitting fashion for this game, Army lost the ball under its own basket under pressure from Maurice Watson, Jr. But the Terriers’ ensuing possession ended with a fruitless Irving drive, giving the Black Knights another opportunity. They took advantage; with BU defending against a possible game-winning three-pointer, leading Army scorer Kyle Wilson took a dribble handoff and got a half-step on his switching defender, getting all the way to the basket and finishing with his left hand.

Irving’s 21-footer at the buzzer missed off of the front rim, setting up the Terriers’ third overtime game — and first victory — of the year.

Wednesday marked just the halfway point of the Patriot League season, but one thing is almost certain: From here, it will be a two-team race. BU (8-1) kept pace with American (9-0) — which likewise beat a service academy at home— and put another game between itself and Army (6-3), who fell into a third-place tie with Holy Cross. It’s possible that either the Black Knights or Crusaders could sneak their way back into the title picture, but with two teams to catch and a combined five games of ground to make up, that would probably require a perfect finish.

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