Upon losing both the Patriot League Tournament title and its shot at the NCAA Tournament, the Boston University men’s basketball team found itself looking for a second chance heading into the National Invitation Tournament.
Earlier this week, the NIT selection committee awarded the seventh-seeded Terriers (24-11) home-court advantage against the No. 2 seed University of Illinois in the tournament’s opening round thanks to renovations to the Fighting Illini’s (20-14) State Farm Center.
To start the game, the Terriers played like a team reborn. After grabbing hold of the lead with 14:33 to go in the first half on a 3-pointer from sophomore guard John Papale, BU looked like it was going to run away with the contest. At one point, BU led 30-13 thanks to the perimeter shooting of Papale and senior guard D.J. Irving.
Unfortunately, it was not enough, and BU could not stop the Fighting Illini’s late second-half surge and fell 66-62.
In the first frame, the Terriers rectified their shooting woes from the last contest, shooting 40.7 percent from the field and went into the break holding a 33-24 lead. Irving led the Terriers with eight points while Papale, senior forward Dom Morris and freshman guard Cedric Hankerson each had six points.
“It speaks volumes for our team to be able to rebound from last week after being so disappointed to be able to come out the way we did,” said BU coach Joe Jones.
For the Fighting Illini, guard Rayvonte Rice led the way with eight points.
A large part of BU’s offense in the first half was generated off of Fighting Illini turnovers as the Terriers turned Illinois’ eight first-half turnovers into 14 points.
“One of our goals every game is to rebound and run,” Watson said. “In the first half, those guys missed a couple of shots and we were able to rebound and get out in transition.”
“[The Terriers] were smarter in the first half than we were, the bulk of it,” said Illinois coach John Groce. “I thought they were a lot quicker than us … We were too casual.”
On the Fighting Illini’s first possession of the second half, Rice scored and was fouled. He converted the ensuing foul shot to cut the Terrier lead to just six points. On the subsequent possession, BU committed a shot-clock violation and then center Nnanna Egwu then sank a jumper to bring the score to 33-29.
Watson answered back, hitting a 3-pointer while falling down to regain the seven-point lead. Rice downed a 3-point shot of his own on the next possession, but Irving responded almost immediately from downtown.
After a Papale jumper at the 12:04 mark brought the BU lead to 48-37, every time the Fighting Illini hit a big shot, the Terriers would rise to the occasion.
A Rice layup with 5:44 left in the game brought Illinois to within two points of the lead. Irving and Morris sank shots on consecutive possessions to extend the Terrier advantage back to six with and it appeared advancing to the second round seemed imminent.
However, Rice took the game into his own hands and with 3:54 left, he corralled a rebound and dished it out to guard Tracy Abrams, who drained his 3-pointer. Two possessions later, Rice stripped the ball from Morris and drove it the length of the court and converted the layup and ensuing free-throw attempt to make it a one-point game.
Papale missed a jumper on the other end, giving Illinois a chance to take the lead for the first time since the 15:04 mark of the first. Rice drove to the basket and was fouled by sophomore forward Nathan Dieudonné. He hit his two shots from the line to give the Illini a 62-61 advantage with 1:27 left.
The Terriers failed to respond when Watson inadvertently threw the ball out of bounds, giving Rice the opportunity to extend the lead. Down three points with 46 seconds remaining, BU attempted to get Irving an open look. The senior could not find space, but he was fouled and converted one of his shots to bring the score to 64-62 with 33 seconds remaining.
BU did have a chance to tie the game up with 10 ticks on the clock, but Morris could not make his layup try. Egwu grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Watson. He made both of his shots from the charity stripe, capping off an 11-1 Fighting Illini run, effectively ending the Terriers’ season.
Rice ended the game with 28 points, 20 of them coming in the second half of play.
As a team, Illinois shot 58 percent in the second half.
Irving led the Terriers with 17 points, but it was the Illini who made the key buckets at the end of the game.
“Illinois is a good team, they’re well coached,” Jones said. “They made big plays down the stretch and we didn’t. That’s the difference in the game… We just didn’t make plays down the stretch.”