American shuts down BU, advances to NCAA tournament

Nathan Dieudonne walks off the court as American fans celebrate their team's 55-36 win in the Patriot League Tournament final.

Nathan Dieudonne walks off the court as American fans celebrate their team’s 55-36 win in the Patriot League Tournament final. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

With an NCAA tournament bid on the line Wednesday night, Boston University’s offense suffered 40 minutes of Murphy’s Law at the worst possible time. The regular-season Patriot League champions, who had scored 91 points in each of their first two postseason games, barely reached one-third of that total in the conference final, as shot after shot clanked off the rim or backboard. After the game, the Terriers could only watch silently as American celebrated on the Agganis Arena floor, having clinched an NCAA berth with a 55-36 victory.

“You have to give American all the credit — they had a great game plan, and they executed their game plan very well,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “I just feel horrible for my seniors — we wouldn’t be in this position without our three seniors; they were terrific all year, and it was a shame we didn’t play one of our better games.”

BU’s 36 points marked the fewest ever in a Patriot League championship game, breaking the previous record by 10 points; only 22 Division-I teams scored fewer than 36 points in a game this season, per Basketball State. Wednesday’s performance capped a terrific defensive tournament for the Eagles, who held all three of their opponents to below 40 percent shooting and fewer than 50 points.

The Terriers missed six of their first seven shots, but Travis Robinson, fresh off the bench, immediately assisted one basket and hit a three-pointer, cutting American’s lead to 8-7. Over the following seven minutes, however, BU was held scoreless for 10 straight possessions, shooting 0-for-10 in that span and missing two free throws.

Early in the first half, the Terriers missed some open shots; by the middle stages, their looks were becoming more and more difficult, including long pull-up jumpers and contested three-pointers that bricked harmlessly off the glass. For the game, the Terriers made only one of 17 treys; even with the game out of hand in the final minutes, their outside shots kept clanking off the rim, as the basketball gods denied BU any bit of penance.

“We took bad shots,” Jones said. “We took contested shots, we took quick shots. I hadn’t seen us play like that in a long time. Every time we took one, I kept thinking, ‘Alright, we’re not going to take another one like that,’ and then we took another one.”

Despite their long scoreless streak, the Terriers remained in sight of the lead, closing the gap to four points on a tip-in by Nathan Dieudonne. But Darius Gardner revived a sleepy Eagles offense and scored the visitors’ final eight points of the half, including a three-pointer in Maurice Watson, Jr.’s face with 12 seconds left.

Gardner finished with a game-high 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting, and was named the tournament MVP.

A pair of John Papale baskets brought BU within 26-20 early in the second half, but four straight points from Tony Wroblicky returned the Eagles’ lead to 10; it would stay within one possession of that level until garbage time. For the entire game, BU never scored on more than two consecutive possessions.

Four days after setting a program record with 17 assists against one turnover, Watson committed a season-high seven giveaways, including a few uncharacteristically sloppy or overheated passes. D.J. Irving, playing his last game at Agganis Arena, shot just 1-for-10, while Dom Morris, doing the same, missed six of his first seven shots.

“You start to second-guess yourself,” Morris said. We settled too much in the beginning, and then when we got our wide-open looks, some of the guys that would normally hit shots, they second-guessed themselves.”

Nowhere was American’s defense better than in the open court. The Terriers always preach that their offense comes from their defense, and their defense held up its end of the bargain on Wednesday, getting eight steals and forcing 17 total turnovers. But the Terriers turned those eight steals into just three points — a far cry from the 33 points they scored from 20 steals over their first two tournament games. American didn’t get a single offensive rebound in the first 37 minutes of play, instead sending everyone back to cut off transition opportunities.

“BU’s a dynamic offensive team; they can get out and score a ton of points quickly,” American coach Mike Brennan said. “Our guys knew, if we turned it over — or even if we make a basket — you have to get back.”

Perhaps no team has had a less likely road to the NCAA tournament than the Eagles. Under Brennan, a first-year head coach, American was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Patriot League, and through the end of December, they looked the part of a bottom-division team. But since the start of 2014, the Eagles have played like a completely different team, and with a lockdown defense and a slow pace, they’ll be a team no 2-seed wants to face next week.

For the Terriers, and especially their seniors — Irving, Morris and Robinson — this isn’t quite the end; as the regular-season Patriot League champion, they will receive an automatic bid to the NIT, where they will seemingly join the 1-seed from every other mid-major conference tournament. But that’s little consolation after the Big Dance was just one more hot game away.

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