At Agganis Arena on Saturday afternoon, it didn’t seem to matter where Malcolm Miller was shooting from. A tough floater in the lane, or a bank shot from a crafty angle? Both good. An NBA-range three-pointer through contact? Straight and pure. A step-back 26-footer, with the shot clock low, over Cedric Hankerson’s outstretched arm? Nothing but net.
The last two came in a 30-second span late in the second half, giving Miller a career-high 30 points on just 14 shooting possessions. They also gave Holy Cross a double-digit lead, enough for the Crusaders to hold on down the stretch for a 77-70 victory over Boston University.
“I made one or two of them against the zone, and I just started feeling a little hot. My teammates were finding me in good spots,” Miller said.
Holy Cross has been near the bottom of the Patriot League standings ever since its 0-3 start, but it hasn’t been the fault of Miller. The senior has scored double figures in a dozen straight games, posting an offensive rating above 100 every time. On Saturday, he did most of his damage from outside, shooting 6-7 on three-pointers and adding four more points from free throws drawn behind the arc.
His teammates were hot from long range as well. Robert Champion was perfect on four treys off the bench, and the team as a whole shot 13-20 from distance — including a blistering 9-10 after halftime — en route to 1.24 points per possession.
Holy Cross entered the weekend last in three-point accuracy in Patriot League play, making its outburst even more remarkable.
“Looking at the numbers, you’d say we’re not going to shoot the ball that great. But it hasn’t been from a lack of our guys being able to shoot the basketball, and the work that we put in,” Holy Cross coach Milan Brown said. “If we just took the last 5-7 games, our offense has improved … Hopefully it just means that the work’s starting to pay off.”
The other key factor was more predictable: Boston U. struggled to hold onto the ball. The Terriers entered the game with the league’s highest turnover rate, while Holy Cross is best at forcing them, so it was no surprise that the hosts committed 17 giveaways.
They still managed 1.13 ppp in spite of the sloppy ballhandling, thanks to accurate shooting of their own, but their turnovers helped spark the Crusaders’ offense. Holy Cross turned 10 live-ball steals (including six from master thief Eric Green) into 18 points.
“They speed you up, and they force you to play faster than you’re comfortable doing,” BU guard John Papale said. “It hurts a bit not having a true point guard out there, but I think a lot of it’s just us making mistakes.”
It was fitting that Holy Cross ended its regular season with a win in Boston, having opened the year with a dramatic Beantown win. Circumstances changed for the Crusaders, who went from preseason title contenders to finishing in a three-way tie for sixth at 8-10, but if there’s ever a year for the 8-seed to make noise in the Patriot League Tournament, it’s this year. Holy Cross improved to 11-4 in Massachusetts; they’ll host Loyola (MD) there in Tuesday’s first round.
The Terriers were in position to earn the 4-seed and a first-round home game, but they slipped to fifth thanks to a three-game parlay of their win, Lafayette’s win and American’s loss. Boston U. will instead visit the Leopards in the 4-vs-5 game Thursday, due to a fourth-place tiebreaker at 9-9.
Saturday’s game was originally scheduled to tip at noon, but it was pushed back to 4 p.m. to accommodate BU’s decision to hold classes (which were surely well-attended) to make up for cancellations caused by record-breaking snow. Three more thoughts from the last game of the Patriot League regular season:
1. Justin Alston continues to improve on offense. The Terriers’ center scored 15 points on 6-8 shooting, frustrating Holy Cross’ bigs in the paint. After making two right-handed hook shots from the lane early, his go-to move, he faked the same shot and countered with a pivot for an easy left-handed layup later in the first half. After scoring in double figures only once in non-conference play, Alston did so eight times in 18 league games, and his 58.3% effective field goal percentage ranks fifth in the Patriot League.
2. The conference tournament bracket is set. Saturday’s results finalized the bracket, in which only two teams were locked into their seeds heading into the final game. (The seeding scenarios for Saturday alone took nearly 500 words to explain.) Bucknell is the 1-seed and the outright league champion at 13-5, while Colgate is seeded second. #10 Army will visit #7 Navy and #9 Loyola visits #8 Holy Cross on Tuesday, with the winners advancing to Thursday’s quarterfinals.
3. But first, a postmortem for this wacky Patriot League season. Seeding matters in the Patriot League Tournament, as all games are played on the higher seed’s court. But after the season we’ve just seen, it’s hard to be too confident in picking favorites. American, ranked first in the preseason poll, ended up with the 6-seed; Army and Holy Cross, picked second and third, couldn’t get first-round byes. The top three playoff seeds entered the year ranked fifth, eighth and seventh, respectively.
28% of Patriot League games were decided by one possession this season, second only to the MAAC, per KenPom.com. Only three games were decided by more than 20 points, the fewest of any conference in the nation. Everything points to an exciting — and unpredictable — conference tournament.
“This year, it’s definitely more wide-open. Even the teams at the top, I feel like they’re beatable, but you have to be ready to play and understand the things it’s going to take to win those battles. It’s going to be interesting to see how it shakes out,” BU coach Joe Jones said. “I think all the kids who are involved in this feel that they have a chance, which is great.”