BOSTON – A year older and wiser, and now in a new league, Boston University opened their season up by showing something on Sunday. Pulling out the 72-69 win over Northeastern was nice, especially since it’s the arch-rival from just across town. But how they won it is more meaningful than the win itself, especially if the Terriers are going to live up to their preseason billing as favorites in the Patriot League.
Sunday’s game is perhaps a prototype for the Terriers on the season. They know they’re a small team, especially on the perimeter, and they were up against a Northeastern team that went with a more traditional lineup of three frontcourt players than the three-guard lineup most college teams go with nowadays. It showed on the glass as Northeastern had a 41-30 edge, but thanks in part to the Terriers’ speed, the Huskies never took full advantage of the second chances with just a 10-6 edge in second-chance points. The Terriers also forced 17 turnovers and gave it away just ten times.
“We don’t really feel like we have a size disadvantage,” said senior guard D.J. Irving. “I feel like we have more heart than every team we play. I’d rather have more heart than height.”
They had that on Sunday, and needed every bit of it. Northeastern controlled a fair amount of the second half and still led by seven with just over five minutes left. That’s when Maurice Watson, Jr. and John Papale went to work, with Watson getting two layups, then Papale a big three-pointer and three free throws after getting fouled on another attempt from behind the arc, to take the lead for good. Watson, who led the way with 16 points and five assists, also got a big layup with 45 seconds left, but they still needed a steal of an inbounds pass by Malik Thomas to seal the win.
“We expected this kind of game,” said head coach Joe Jones. “They made their run, and our guys really stayed with it and made plays down the stretch. That kind of resiliency is what we need if we’re going to have the success we want to have.”
For the Terriers to stage that comeback was big. This is a team that at times won games perhaps a little too easily last year, and at times Jones was trying to get them to be tougher because it won’t always be so easy. He’s also done that because with their lack of size, they have to work harder to overcome that disadvantage. If they don’t work hard enough, teams will be able to use their size advantage to score on them.
The Terriers get not only a good size boost off the bench, but potentially much more with Cedric Hankerson. The freshman guard gave them a big boost on Sunday in his debut, as the Terriers had struggled a bit offensively before he came in and scored eight points in six minutes, including a couple of three-pointers. Hankerson is 6’5″, and the staff has been high on him all along. He showed some of why that is on Sunday, and although he didn’t score in the second half and was the only Terrier not to get a rebound, he made an impact as BU came alive after he hit a couple of shots.
That set the stage for the trio of Papale, Watson and senior Dom Morris, who all scored ten points in the second frame. They ended up with a balanced attack although Northeastern out-scored them off the bench.
The Terriers show great chemistry and overall intangibles, and that should take them a long way. They’re used to being small, especially on the perimeter, so they know how to play that way. And while they may not have always understood some of the toughness that’s needed, they seem to be on track now.
“We just try to focus on playing for each other, and everything else is going to take care of itself,” said Watson. “Big is not always better. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
The Terriers are very much the hunted in their first year in the Patriot League. Given their place as one of the signature programs in America East, they were in that position there as well. But as established favorites and the new kids on the block, they have a clear target on their backs. Winning Sunday’s opener against their arch-rivals by coming from behind late like a seasoned veteran group is one thing they will be expected to do if the situation arises.