Boston University Holds Off American, Patriot League Remains Tightly Packed

Before Wednesday’s visit to Agganis Arena, American had won three straight games thanks to three last-second shots by Pee Wee Gardner. Meanwhile, Boston University had lost three in a row, two of which were decided on the final play. So when the Eagles clawed within one possession and had the ball entering the final minute, it looked like their streak of late-game highlights might continue.

Eric Fanning scored 14 points in his first start as a Terrier.

Eric Fanning scored 14 points in his first start as a Terrier.

“There’s no doubt that comes into your mind,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “You know they’re going to make plays, and you hope you’ve got your guys ready to make some plays.”

The Terriers had taken command with a 12-0 run after halftime, but American battled back with backdoor cuts and clutch three-pointers. Jesse Reed’s uncontested layup off a baseline out-of-bounds set cut the margin to 55-52, and an offensive foul on Cedric Hankerson gave the Eagles a chance to tie.

But Gardner’s crunch-time magic ran out. He lost a loose ball in the lane, retaining possession only by calling timeout just before a tie-up. On the ensuing play, he fed Reed with another backdoor pass, but the junior’s open layup bounced three times on the rim before falling the wrong way.

With the shot clock winding down, Eric Fanning beat Gardner for a layup on the other end, and the Terriers held on for a 59-54 victory (at a typically American pace: 53 possessions).

Both teams are now 4-3 in conference play — only one game out of the lead in the wild Patriot League, where no team is better than 5-2 or worse than 2-5. (Elsewhere Wednesday, Army knocked off Colgate late, Holy Cross beat Lafayette on a Justin Burrell game-winner, and Bucknell overcame clock malfunctions to win at Loyola (MD).) The victory also gave BU a modicum of revenge for last year’s thrashing in the Patriot League Tournament finals.

“It’s great to beat American,” Hankerson said. “We saw how bad it was to lose to them here at home last year in the championship, so we kind of had that edge and our chip on our shoulders today.”

Other thoughts from Agganis Arena:

1. The Terriers changed the game with second-half pressure. Hankerson banged a pair of three-pointers immediately after halftime, and a technical foul on American coach Mike Brennan failed to slow the hosts’ momentum. As Jones shouted “Energy! Energy!” from the bench, they shifted into an aggressive full-court press, getting two consecutive steals at midcourt and converting them into layups for a 15-point lead.

The latter steal-and-score came from Hankerson, who finished the game with a program-record nine steals (along with 18 points, six assists and six rebounds). “I saw that they were careless with the ball a little bit,” he said. “We played against them last year, so we’re kind of experts on their offense. They like to back-cut a lot, so at times I saw that coming.”

2. Marko Vasic gave American a spark. The Eagles needed help from their bench Wednesday, and they got it from the 6-5 Serbian, who played as an undersized five for much of the second half. Stretching BU center Justin Alston to unfamiliar territory, Vasic hit a pair of three-pointers and scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime, helping the visitors erase most of a double-digit deficit. “Marco’s been around and he’s played a lot of minutes, so he comes in at the end when we need someone who’s more ready,” Brennan said.

3. BU missed Nate Dieudonne on the glass. The junior forward is BU’s top rebounder — especially on the defensive end, where he pulls down 22% of opponent’s misses — but Jones sat him on Wednesday, after his flagrant foul in the waning seconds fueled an improbable Loyola comeback last weekend. The Terriers struggled on the boards in his absence, allowing American to collect 35 percent of its missed shots (well above its league-worst average of 20%). “We have a lot of guys that are watching because they’re guards, drifting out to the perimeter and waiting for someone else to get it. I think that’s got to be an emphasis from here on out,” Jones said.

Bonus: The Raising Cane’s promotions at Agganis Arena are like a video game. The fried chicken chain’s first giveaway required BU to score 60 points against Lafayette, which is a piece of cake (every Leopards opponent but one has done so). On Wednesday, the hosts had to hold slow-paced American under 60 points, which they did without trouble. Will the levels keep getting harder? The Terriers will eventually finish their home schedule against Holy Cross, so maybe the “boss battle” will ask them to commit fewer turnovers than the Crusaders, all in the name of fried chicken.