Under Mike Brennan, American has been nearly unstoppable in the Patriot League Tournament. In 2014, the No. 2-seed Eagles ran through three games with ease, thrashing No. 1 Boston University in the final. Last year, coming in as the sixth seed, they upset two teams before a two-point loss to Lafayette in the final.
And on Thursday, they improved their playoff record to 6-1 in the Brennan era — including 4-1 on the road — by beating the Terriers 69-64 at Case Gymnasium. No. 6 American will visit No. 2 Lehigh in Sunday’s semifinals.
“In prior years it’s been the leadership of my teammates. We had John [Schoof] and Pee Wee [Gardner] last year, Tony [Wroblicky] two years ago, and they really set the tone and led the way for us,” senior Jesse Reed said. “So this year, myself, Marko [Vasic], Charlie [Jones], we’ve all tried to take on that leadership role — to continue what they started and set the tone with us, and have the other guys follow.”
American was in postseason form from the opening tip. Forward Paris Maragkos played only nine minutes, but he made the most of them, scoring seven points in the game’s first four possessions. BU came back to take the lead at two different points in the first half, but the Eagles closed the period on a 10-2 run to take a six-point edge into the break.
That lead ballooned to ten points midway through the second half, until the Terriers turned the game over to Eric Fanning, named a first-team All-Patriot League honoree this week. Fanning threw down a nasty baseline dunk, skying over Marko Vasic and drawing a foul. Those were the first of seven straight points scored by the junior, bringing the hosts within 51-48.
But that was as close as they would get. The Eagles’ methodical offense went to work: Rookie of the Year Delante Jones squared up for a nine-foot jumper, and Jones followed with a contested layup. Several minutes later, Jalen Rhea scored on a textbook backdoor cut, and American’s lead was back to double digits.
“A dunk like that, that’ll get anybody going — that got the crowd into it, the place started jumping after that,” Reed said. “Just because we’ve been there before plenty of times, we just knew, this is where they make their run, we’re due for a run at some point. If we stick with our principles, keep running our offense and lock in on D, we’ll make a run of our own.”
The Eagles held BU without a field goal for seven minutes after Fanning’s dunk, taking particular care to close out on the Terriers’ prolific shooters. The hosts made four of their first eight three-pointers, but they finished the game just 7-24, as many of their attempts were contested or several feet beyond the arc. “They hit a bunch more last time we played them [8-14], so we were a little more aggressive, making them take more difficult shots,” Brennan said.
Meanwhile, the Eagles made six three-pointers — including 4-5 shooting from Rhea, for a team-high 15 points — and they were uncharacteristically sure-handed, committing only nine turnovers. They controlled the pace of the game (62 possessions), finishing with a well-balanced 1.11 points per possession. They suffered a hiccup in the final minutes, committing back-to-back turnovers in the backcourt, but the Terriers could not take advantage, going 9-20 from the foul line.
BU dressed everyone who played in its third-place Patriot League campaign, but it was still far from healthy. Point guard Kyle Foreman, who suffered an ankle injury last week, spent most of Thursday evening on an exercise bike behind the BU bench, playing only eight minutes. Forward Nathan Dieudonne played his first game since going down against American three weeks ago, coming off the bench for five points and seven rebounds. Nick Havener also did not start after coming out of the season finale with an Achilles injury, playing only 15 minutes against American.
“I’m very proud of our guys this season, in terms of what they had to overcome getting to this point,” said BU coach Joe Jones, who added that he expects to play in the CIT or CBI. “Tonight, we didn’t play our best game, obviously. They played better, they made more plays, they deserved to win that game. But I’ve been in this business long enough to understand that one game doesn’t make a season, and our guys should be very proud of what they started this year, in terms of what they did with the situation we’re in.”
Elsewhere in the Patriot League:
No. 9 Holy Cross upset No. 1 Bucknell in double overtime, 77-72. Robert Champion’s fadeaway three at the end of the first overtime forced the second period, and the Bison shot just 10-39 on three-pointers. For only the second time in Patriot League Tournament history, the 1-seed will not reach the final; the first was Bucknell last year.
No. 2 Lehigh held off No. 7 Navy 65-63, with Tim Kempton’s three-point play breaking a tie in the final minute. Will Kelly blocked five shots for the Midshipmen (not even his career playoff high), but he couldn’t stop Kempton from scoring a game-high 22 points. The Mountain Hawks have now won 10 straight games, and they’ll play at home for the rest of the tournament.
No. 4 Army beat Colgate 79-72, scoring 1.16 ppp. 70 of those points came from its starters, including 23 from Tanner Plomb, and 19 and 10 rebounds from Kevin Ferguson. Army’s senior-laden lineup now gets to play at home for the semifinals, improving its odds to reach its first NCAA tournament.