Under Zach Spiker, Army has been the fastest-paced team in the Patriot League for four years running. This year’s Cadets are the fastest version yet, topping 70 possessions per game even as the rest of the nation stagnates. But instead of trying to slow the Cadets down on Wednesday night, Boston University often ran right with them, rolling to a 63-57 win at Agganis Arena.
Boston U. made clear its intention to run late in the first half. Cedric Hankerson took a quick outlet pass and raced down the court, drawing two free throws and a second foul on Army star Kyle Wilson. Twenty seconds later, Eric Fanning beat the Cadets down the court off of a loose rebound for a layup and one, stretching the Terriers’ lead to a game-high 15 points.
The hosts also flashed a full-court press, helping squeeze 69 possessions into Wednesday’s game. BU has grown more comfortable in fast-paced skin throughout the year: After ranking in the mid-200s nationally in adjusted tempo early in the season, the Terriers have risen to the top 150. Coach Joe Jones said there hasn’t been a conscious effort to play faster, but the data shows an acceleration throughout Patriot League play:
The Terriers opened the game with a 15-2 run and led by a dozen points at halftime. Each time, Army came back to within striking distance, only to see the Terriers pull away again. “Every time we made a run, they had an answer. It really was the case the entire night,” Spiker said.
Those runs often featured BU center Justin Alston, who scored a career-high 18 points on 8-12 shooting. After the Black Knights pulled within one possession midway through the second half, Alston picked out Nathan Dieudonne under the basket for an easy basket, drew a foul and split a pair of free throws the next time down the floor, and then ended the same possession with a putback and one.
Alston was also strong on the defensive end, helping limit Army center Kevin Ferguson to 10 points — half his total in January’s meeting, a 71-67 Cadets win. On a key possession in the final two minutes, Alston forced Ferguson into a low-percentage shot from the post, then ripped down the rebound in traffic. “We just wanted to be really aggressive, and try to take them out and force them to catch the ball out further,” Alston said. “Their big men are long and athletic, so we wanted to take them out and force the guards to do more with the ball.”
The Terriers improved to 9-8, alone in fourth place in the Patriot League. A win in Saturday’s season finale against Holy Cross (OR a Lafayette loss to Army OR an American win over Bucknell) will secure the 4-seed and a first-round home game in the conference tournament next week. BU will enter the postseason on a high note, having won five of its last seven. After struggling defensively for most of the season, the Terriers have held opponents under a point per possession in each of those five victories, including Army’s .83 ppp on Wednesday.
“If you had to say to me a month ago, what were our issues with our team, it was our defense. We’ve gotten a lot better that way,” Jones said. “What we’ve done in practice is, we haven’t worked a lot on offensive execution … it’s been completely time spent defensively. I think that’s why we are where we are.”
Meanwhile, Army has been trending in the opposite direction. The Cadets were in third place after beating BU a month ago. They’ve lost seven of eight games since, and they now sit alone in the cellar at 6-11, a game behind Holy Cross, Navy and Loyola (MD). Army was ranked second in the preseason poll, but it will be the 10-seed in the 10-team Patriot League Tournament. (The Cadets will tie at least one other team at 7-11 with a win over Lafayette, but they lose the tiebreaker in any possible permutation.)
At the top of the league, Bucknell needs a win or a Colgate loss to secure the top seed, while Lehigh is locked into #3. American and Lafayette are tied for the 5-6 seeds entering the final game, and either will lock up a first-round bye with a win Saturday. Thanks to the tiebreaker math, Lafayette will be in trouble with a loss, while American should stay out of the bottom four either way. (If my late-night logic is accurate, the Eagles are safe unless they lose AND Lafayette wins AND Loyola wins AND BU wins.)
The full tempo-free standings: