With 1.1 seconds left on the clock, Caleb Martin inbounded the ball under the basket, with North Carolina State trailing Boston College men’s basketball by one. Given the time remaining, NC State appeared resigned to hoisting a long jumper or throwing a contested lob near the rim, both plays with a low chance of success.
Instead, as Maverick Rowan sliced down the lane, Jerome Robinson and Sammy Barnes-Thompkins both jumped toward Martin—a fatal miscommunication. As Robinson realized his mistake, a look of sheer panic spread across his face. Rowan slid under the basket and laid in the easiest game-winner of his life, handing the reeling Eagles (7-23, 0-17 Atlantic Coast) their 17th consecutive loss, 73-72.
After a season marred by blowouts and injuries, the stars had appeared to align for BC on Wednesday night.
Jerome Robinson (broken wrist) and A.J. Turner (high ankle sprain) both returned to the lineup after extensive absences due to injury, giving head coach Jim Christian his full complement of players for the first time since late January.
Playing in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C. in front of friends and family, Robinson regained his starting role and injected a noticeable dose of energy and intensity into a team that had clearly been missing his stabilizing presence on the floor, crashing the offensive glass and driving to the rim with no timidity.
Despite falling down 7-0 early, the Eagles stormed back, blitzing the Wolfpack (15-15, 5-12) with a 19-3 run to take a 33-20 lead with a little under four minutes left in the half. The Eagles’ ball movement on offense returned, with players constantly cycling around the perimeter and screening for each other. The isolation play that had bogged down a few of their prior games vanished. Christian’s ideal offense was run to fantastic results and the team played with great pace, running out in transition, seeking easy buckets.
The run was keyed by Turner, who entered the game a little before the 10-minute mark of the first half. Immediately upon his entrance, he drilled a three to give the Eagles their first lead of the contest, 19-18. Turner went on to hit another three in that stretch, as well as setting up Dennis Clifford for a nice layup in transition.
The emphasis on pace and getting out in transition led to easy buckets inside for both Clifford, who continued his revival with a team-high 18 points, and Garland Owens, who had a pair of spectacular first-half dunks.
Despite this early outburst, foreshadowing later collapses, the Eagles spent the remaining minutes of the first half allowing the Wolfpack to stay in the game. NC State closed the half on an 11-2 run, entering the locker room down just 35-31.
Anthony “Cat” Barber, the ACC’s leading scorer, tallied its last nine points of the half, using his lightning quickness to slip past Eli Carter time and time again. After spending the majority of the half keeping the Wolfpack out of the paint, the Eagles defense slackened a bit in those closing minutes. For the first of many times on the night, the youthful Eagles’ lack of experience holding the lead came to the forefront.
The early portion of the second half featured a back-and-forth struggle, with both offenses kicking it into gear, en route to a 57-57 tie with a little less than 10 minutes remaining. Robinson proved his value in this stretch, racking up all four of his assists on the night. He was quick and decisive with the ball, providing the team with a much-needed secondary creator.
For the game, Robinson’s presence catalyzed the team to what may have been its best offensive performance all season, with the Eagles having 18 assists to just six turnovers.
With the game in the balance, the Eagles’ veteran leaders stepped to the forefront, with Clifford and Carter igniting a 10-3 run and pushing the Eagles’ lead to 67-60 with five minutes left. All but two of the points were either in the paint or at the free-throw line.
A chance to avoid the infamy of losing every ACC game stood squarely before the Eagles, theirs for the taking. If only they knew how to take it.
Barber stepped to the free-throw line following this run, looking to snap his team’s offensive malaise. An 87 percent free-throw shooter, he proceeded to miss both free throws, gifting the Eagles a chance to push the lead even further on the offensive end.
But, this gift was contingent upon the Eagles completing the elementary acts of boxing out and securing the rebound, both of which they failed to do. Martin snuck inside to grab the loose ball and drilled a triple 15 seconds later. His hustle play ignited a 9-0 run for NC State, in which all the points were scored on three 3-pointers by he and Rowan.
On the offensive end, BC’s offense suddenly grew stagnant. Though there was ball and player movement early in the shot clock, it proved to merely be a precursor to Carter isolations. Over the last five minutes of the game, Carter had four 3-point attempts, missing them all.
With a shade over one minute remaining, Owens tied the game at 71-71 with a tough runner along the baseline.
When Owens pressured 260-pound behemoth Abdul-Malik Abu into a missed shot in the post at the other end, BC had a chance to take the lead.
True to form, despite calling timeout to presumably draw up a play, Carter used the possession to launch his patented contested 3-pointer. Luckily for the Eagles, Robinson secured the loose ball in the ensuing scrum, drawing a foul.
With a chance to be the hometown hero, Robinson—who shot just 3-for-8 from the line in the game—split the pair, giving the Eagles a 72-71 lead. Despite all of their crunch-time errors, mainly owing to their inexperience in the moment, they still appeared poised to leave Raleigh with that all-important first conference win.
But again, their inability to reach out and grab that win showed on the disastrous game-winner. As Robinson walked away from the jubilation unfolding around him, crouching in agony as the magnitude of the breakdown enveloped him, the glaring reality of the Eagles’ season came into focus.
The team may have talent. It undeniably has future potential. But as long as its players don’t have the innate sense for seizing the moment, holding their opponents at a distance, the wins will be mighty hard to come by.
Featured Image by Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP