After suffering through a horrendous football season and an equally cringe-worthy month of basketball, it looked like the athletic stars had finally aligned for Boston College on Tuesday night. Men’s hockey won its Beanpot in dramatic fashion on Monday night, women’s hockey walked away with a 7-0 win in the women’s Beanpot on Tuesday, and men’s basketball was on the verge of doing what it has spent the entirety of 2016 trying to accomplish: winning an ACC game.
BC came out strong from the get-go, as Garland Owens grabbed the opening tip and put in a layup about the same time Dennis Clifford touched back down on the floor. A free throw by Clifford gave the Eagles their second lead of the game, which they held on to for the next 34 minutes. Though the Eagles never fully crashed, as they have been prone to doing, the offense stagnated just enough to allow UNC to slip in and grab a 68-65 win.
During the time they led, though, there was an unusual hub of activity normally absent from an iceless Conte Forum. There was Clifford, grinning and flexing to the crowd as he celebrated multiple slams in the best game of his long collegiate career. There was Steve Perpiglia, captain of the BC bench cheering squad, negotiating with referees during a timeout on the boundary lines during celebrations. The BC crowd steadily improved throughout the game, eventually challenging the sea of Carolina blue. UNC head coach Roy Williams left the game early in the second half after suffering a vertigo attack, and Eli Carter’s shooting touch never fully cooled off.
Oh, and this:
Every piece fit in just right—except one. The only thread that didn’t slip its way nicely into the upset story was Justin Jackson.
The 6-foot-8 forward shined early on in the season, winning the MVP of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic with 43 points and 18 rebounds over two games. Despite taking a backseat to Brice Johnson since then, he has started every game for UNC. That is, until Tuesday night, when Johnson, Jackson, and Kennedy Meeks all began the game on the bench—a move Williams and the coaching staff first considered on the flight back from Notre Dame, UNC’s second consecutive loss after a 19-2 start to the year.
“You lose two games in a row, everything’s not hunky-dory,” said UNC assistant coach Steve Robinson, who picked up the coaching reins when Williams left. “We wanted to shake things up. [We said] ‘Okay fellas, we have to play better.’ That was a big thing for us, just trying to shake it up a little bit, get us going.”
It didn’t work, at least right away. The man most likely to break out for the Tar Heels was Johnson, who leads the team in scoring with 16.6 points a game while also averaging a double-double. These are numbers that have put him on a 10-player watch list for the Karl Malone Award, given to the top power forward in the country.
But after getting beat up by Johnson and the rest of the Tar Heels for 50 points in the paint during an 89-62 loss on Jan. 30, BC fine-tuned its game plan, preventing the power forward from ever really settling in.
“When you play someone the second time, you identify what they did to hurt you and what you need to take away,” Christian said.
It was Clifford more than anyone else who managed to take Johnson out of the game. BC’s big man didn’t let Johnson get many easy looks inside, limiting Johnson to nine points on seven shots.
As the option for Johnson closed, Jackson opened. Early on he was guarded by BC’s 6-foot-7 forward A.J. Turner, who is one of the few members of BC’s roster with the height and athleticism to successfully limit versatile forwards who can drive and shoot. Both times A.J. Turner was subbed out in the second half, Jackson scored immediately on the next possession—first an open 3-pointer, then a too-loosely contested lay-in. While Turner was in, Jackson netted just one shot in the first half. This made his fall that much tougher.
Just three minutes into the second half, with BC up by nine, UNC’s Theo Pinson moved the ball along the perimeter to Jackson. As Turner hopped forward to play Jackson up close, he landed badly on his right foot, immediately crying out in pain and reaching down to grab his ankle. Jackson took advantage of Turner’s fall to knock down a 3-pointer, cutting the BC lead to six.
Turner was helped off and taken straight to the locker room. 20 minutes later, he returned to the bench with a wrapped ankle and crutches, his status after the game still uncertain.
In Turner’s absence, Jackson again wasted no time. After Carter knocked down a three to re-extend the lead, Jackson scored back-to-back baskets despite the chippy, aggressive efforts from Darryl Hicks.
“[Losing Turner] hurt us,” Christian said. “A.J. is our longest perimeter defender. So on a night when Jackson’s playing the way he’s playing, that length was huge because our only other option now was Darryl, who’s a tough kid, but that’s 5, 6 inches and he was just taking it to the lane and shooting right over the top of him.”
Jackson finished with a team-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting, an incredibly efficient line compared to Carter’s 8-of-21. But even though Jackson spoiled BC’s chance at an upset, the Eagles finally played a full game. Turner’s ankle combined with Jerome Robinson’s own broken wrist may seriously dampen BC’s odds of picking up a win in the next three and a half weeks, but for the first time, BC’s freshmen got to feel a real home atmosphere at home.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor