BU’s defense solves American, nears Patriot League title

American center Tony Wroblicky faces a double-team in the post during the second half of Wednesday's game. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

American center Tony Wroblicky faces a double-team in the post during the second half of Wednesday’s game. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

The first time Boston University faced American this season, at the Eagles’ Bender Arena, it didn’t end well for the visitors. In what was then a meeting of Patriot League unbeatens, American shot 8-for-14 on two-pointers and an absurd 11-for-14 on threes — for an effective field goal percentage of 84.5% that still stands as the third-best performance of any D-I team this season — in an 86-56 rout. So when American, with first place once again on the line in Wednesday’s rematch at Agganis Arena, made eight consecutive shots early in the first half to take a 22-12 lead, it might have felt like a recurring nightmare for the Terriers.

From that point forward, however, BU’s defense made the Eagles’ shooting look downright mediocre, becoming the first team to hold American under a point per possession in Patriot League play. Timely points down the stretch helped the Terriers pull away for a 71-62 victory and put the conference title in sight, going two games up on the second-place Eagles with three games to play.

“We definitely wanted to beat them — revenge for what they did when we went down there — but we didn’t want to get too hyped,” center Dom Morris said.

Early on, the Terriers had no answer for star American center Tony Wroblicky, who scored eight points in a four-minute span. Guarding closely against kick-outs, BU mostly left Justin Alston or Dom Morris alone to guard Wroblicky one-on-one — while also serving as help defenders for other players — resulting in several easy layups.

Late in the first half, however, Wroblicky left the game after a blow to the head left him bleeding from the scalp. When he returned in the second half, he shot just 1-for-4, as BU sent frequent double-teams at him and avoided the breakdowns it suffered early on. “They spread us out and had us rotating so much [in the first half] … we weren’t defending that great, so Dom was leaving the post to rotate onto the perimeter, and they were throwing it in to him,” Jones said of Wroblicky. “Once we got better collectively defensively, it shut down on the times Dom had to leave the post.”

The Terriers weren’t exactly lighting up their own nets; they shot just 39 percent in the first half, but they still made as many field goals as the 59 percent-shooting Eagles thanks to an edge in offensive rebounding and turnovers. For the game, BU grabbed 16 of a possible 35 offensive rebounds against what had been one of the Patriot League’s best defensive rebounding teams.

“We don’t have to shoot a great percentage to win,” Jones said. “If we’re not turning the ball over, if we’re rebounding, we’re going to be okay.”

American, on the other hand, does have to shoot a great percentage to win games — the Eagles turn the ball over frequently (thanks in part to their patient, pass-heavy offense) and are well below average in offensive rebounding and free throw rate. American usually does just that, ranking first nationally in two-point shooting percentage (and among the top 30 on threes), but the shots stopped falling in the second half on Wednesday, when the Eagles shot just 6-for-17 on twos.

An alley-oop from Maurice Watson, Jr. to Alston early in the second half put BU ahead 37-36; one John Papale three and a Watson jumper later, the hosts’ lead had ballooned to six. But every time the Terriers were close to putting the game away down the stretch, the Eagles kept the game interesting with a three-pointer.

The game stayed in that state until the final four minutes, when Morris scored six points on three possessions over a tentative Wroblicky, who was playing with four fouls. “We wanted to go at Wroblicky … He got in foul trouble, so we wanted to keep the pressure on him, and Dom did a good job of that,” Jones said. Morris capped his game-sealing stretch with a clock-draining offensive rebound on the following possession that turned into two D.J. Irving foul shots, and BU was never tested during the free throw parade.

Barring a sudden collapse, it looks like the Terriers will be crowned champions in their first Patriot League season. But if they needed a reminder that sudden collapses can happen, they could have looked across the court on Wednesday. After an out-of-nowhere 10-0 start to the Patriot League season, the Eagles have lost four of their last five games. Most of those games have been competitive, but American’s road back to Agganis Arena for a possible Patriot League Tournament final will be far from easy.

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