Featured Column, Men's Basketball

Analyzing the Final Play in Men’s Basketball’s Fateful Loss to NC State

This just hasn’t been the year for Boston College men’s basketball (or football either, but at least that season ended a while ago). On Wednesday night against North Carolina State, things finally seemed a little better. At least, for the first 39 minutes and 59 seconds, when the set-up had finally seemed to fall into place for a win. But a college basketball game lasts a full 40 minutes.

Really, there’s no use beating around the bush. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the final 1.1 seconds now. We’ll get more into it a little later.

That was how BC lost Wednesday night. One point away, one second away from one win. And then Maverick Rowen snatched it away.

But first, how it got to that point.

BC entered Wednesday night with just two games left to play in the regular season. That meant two more chances to pick up an ACC win, and avoid joining the likes of Georgia, Sewanee, and Northwestern as the only Power Five conference teams to ever go winless for in-conference games in both football and basketball. Then again, in reality, BC really would be in a league of its own—Georgia played just five games due to World War II, Sewanee left the SEC after failing to win a game eight years in a row in the ’30s to presently reside in Division III, and even Northwestern only had 18 chances to pick up a win. BC will have 26.

In one of the most powerful conferences in the country, the Eagles didn’t stand much of a chance in their first 11 ACC games, seven of which came against ranked opponents. The last seven games, though, were the ones BC had a chance to hop on, all of which were against teams in the bottom half of the ACC (and Clemson, which is eighth out of 15). Unfortunately for BC, that time coincided with a pair of injuries to its starting lineup—freshmen Jerome Robinson and A.J. Turner, the former of whom ranks second on the Eagles in most offensive categories behind Eli Carter.

Without that duo BC floundered, falling to 1-13 Wake Forest by 26 and 6-8 Virginia Tech by 15. On Wednesday night, the two finally returned, giving BC its best chance against 4-12 NC State before facing a tougher test against 9-8 Clemson in its regular-season finale on Saturday (ACC records only).

And it finally looked like the one. A 19-3 run gave BC a double-digit lead in the first half, though the Wolfpack trimmed it down to four by the half. While Dennis Clifford put up yet another solid 18-point performance, he also got a boost from other guys across the board, as five Eagles, including A.J. Turner and Garland Owens, put up double-digit performances.

Yet more than anything else, it was free throws that put the game where it was at the end. It started with just under five minutes left, when NC State’s Anthony Barber stepped to the line, looking to cut down BC’s seven-point lead. He missed both shots, but Caleb Martin grabbed his rebound and proceeded to knock down a triple 18 seconds later.

Fast-forward three minutes ahead—a stretch when BC missed three more free throws and NC State had slashed the lead to 0. With just under 60 seconds left to go in the game, Owens played tough man D on Abdul-Malik Abu, forcing a man 3 inches and 15 pounds bigger than himself to rim out. After a bit of confusion on the rebound, Carter secured the board, and BC took the timeout.

Coming back out, BC ran the play it has relied on for big points all year (You can extrapolate its success rate for BC’s record in close games). After throwing a couple passes around the perimeter, the ball got to Carter back at the top of the key. Clifford gave him a screen at the 3-point line, Carter dribbled around it, and put up a pretty good look. Though it’s a shot Carter can hit when he’s on, it’s also a shot he has missed far more often, and on Wednesday, he was 0-for-11 from beyond the arc.

eli carter

It was the rebound that followed that could have changed the game.


dennis clifford

Okay, admittedly, it’s not really easy to see anything that happened from that view. Initially, 6-foot-7 guard Martin (No. 14) had the best chance to grab the ball off the rim, but it slipped through his fingers. Clifford had the next best chance at it, but somehow, it bounced off his fingers and down into a pile behind him.

How do I know all that? Thanks to this angle:


I’m still not entirely sure how the ball got from being in front of Clifford to behind Clifford, but clearly it happens, so we just have to accept that. From there, No. 21 BeeJay Anya grabs it next, hugging it on the ground as Martin and his twin, Cody, begin to frantically call for a timeout. Before the referees blow their whistles or Anya can get the ball somewhere safe, Sammy Barnes-Thompkins, one of the harder-working freshmen on the team, leapt into the picture. He manhandled the ball away from Anya and passed it along to the hands of Robinson, who took it straight to the hoop to pick up a foul.

In a nutshell, that’s what this basketball team has been missing this season—besides a lack of height, better consistent shooting touches, less foul trouble…. You know. Besides all those disadvantages BC has had—many of which were to be expected before the first tip-off of the year—it has no excuse for not being the team that out-hustles its opponents on any given night. In this losing stretch, with the exception of guys like Clifford, Barnes-Thompkins and Darryl Hicks (the latter of whom hasn’t played since sustaining a concussion on a diving play in BC’s game against Florida State on Jan. 26), it has been far easier to spot lackadaisical play, especially once the Eagles have fallen behind in a game. That type of effort from Barnes-Thompkins—both the mental acumen to fight through on the play even while it looked like NC State would get the ball, and the physical presence to basically jump onto Anya to get the ball—is the kind that can give an out-skilled team an edge. In this case, it gave BC what could have been the final lead in the game.

Which is what makes that final sequence all the more painful to watch.

First, we have to go back to that pesky free-throw line. More than anyone, it was Robinson who had struggled thus far that night, making just 2-of-7, a sign of five weeks of rust and a lack of touch after having a fractured wrist. He clanged the first one off the front of the rim.

To his credit, he shook it off and knocked down the second, giving BC a lead with 17.2 seconds to play.

NC State rolled the ball up over half court, picked it up, and called a timeout, giving Mark Gottfried a 15.9-second window to work with on drawing up a play. Down by one, all NC State needed to do was pick up a two. Anthony ‘Cat’ Barber, the ACC’s and the game’s leading scorer, was the most obvious option to try to get something inside.

That’s what it looked like was coming, as Cody inbounded to Barber around half court. Instead of running a play to try to get something inside, NC State just set a pair of screens down on the baseline for Rowen, who cut hard to the corner. Barber hit him with a pass as he reached the arc, but Robinson never got too far behind him, forcing Rowen to put up a turnaround, fadeaway three—a pretty good look at the buzzer, but not with a one-point deficit and about 10 seconds more to work with.

The rebound came flying off toward Caleb and Carter, neither of whom could grab it, and instead the ball fell into the hands Barber. With a step to the side and a shuffle back, he launched up a second 3-point shot—a curious decision, as it looked like he also could have room to take a step in for a leaner. His look was good enough even at the 3-point line to get halfway down, but again it popped out.

That’s where things started to get tricky. In another bobble between both teams (notice a metaphorical pattern?), the ball scooted out-of-bounds, at which point the clock was stopped with a second left and the referee immediately pointed NC State ball.

For once, both were right.

You can’t really tell anything from this angle.


bc basketball

Or this one, except it’s pretty clear here Robinson didn’t get a hand on it as he dove out-of-bounds.


bc basketball


But finally we come to this one, where it seems pretty straightforward. The ball definitely changes direction off of Barnes-Thompkins. I’m not sure exactly if his left hand or his left ankle was the last thing to touch it, but it had to be one of them. The clock was also pretty accurate, as the refs confirmed in the replay review, which is allowed with under two minutes to go.


bc basketball


Then, the final play. 1.1 seconds to go. In case you forgot, watch it again real quick:


bc basketball

First off, what a great play call by Gottfried, even if the final result isn’t quite how he drew it up. After the questionable 3-point launch a little while earlier, NC State did a fantastic job drawing up a play that got Maverick Rowan such a great look. But that’s also a product of having a prolific scorer. It was similar last year when BC had Olivier Hanlan (and played in more late close games). Just when everyone thought he was going to give the ball to Hanlan, Christian had Patrick Heckmann make the cut, more than once resulting in a good look at a layup.

For NC State, Barber serves as an equally good distraction. Carter started on him at one side of the paint, while the other three members of the Wolfpack stood in a vertical file on the other. For the first three counts by the referee’s hand, Barber made cuts to get open, first trying down low, where Barnes-Thompkins slid over to help, free of a man since BC decided not to put anyone on Caleb, the inbounder. He then makes one of the hardest cuts of the game back up top, leaving Carter still floating down toward the baseline. These couple yards of separation forced BC to find someone to pick him up as he sped around the picket fence to the perimeter.




Notice in the picture above that Rowan has already taken his first step toward the hoop. Although everyone possibly responsible for defending his cut—Barnes-Thompkins, Carter, and Robinson, his man—can clearly see his move toward the basket, it seems more like another screen to block Carter from taking the faster route under the screens to catch up with Barber. Which it does:



But as Rowan admitted after the game, Barber was still NC State’s first option. Carter was miles behind Barber once he got caught behind Rowan, which could have left Barber with a wide-open look at the 3-point line. Instead, Owens sees Barber passing the line of picks, and almost without hesitation shuffles to his right to pick up Barber, his long arms extended to prevent Caleb from hitting him at any point in the run.


bc basketball


The second option, then, was for Rowan to come around down below those two screens in the same direction as Barber, in an effort for a fadeaway, midrange jumper. Instead, he was blocked by Barnes-Thompkins, who initially bodied him up as he reached circle.






This double coverage should have been enough to prevent anything else from happening in the paint. Even though 6-foot-3 Barnes-Thompkins is generally undersized for taking on a guy like 6-foot-7 Rowan at the rim, he is a tough guy and has had enough experience this season playing up that he should have eliminated Rowan as an option. After all, the referee at this moment has his fist at his chest, meaning just 1.5 seconds remained for Caleb to get the ball in. Clifford, admittedly, is now covering two men—Cody and Anya—who could have split to get open, but the chance of either getting a good look would have been slim. BC just had to remain solid for another second and a half.

Then BC’s youth truly showed. Although Owens had picked up Barber and had the scorer under control, nearly every BC player had his attention firmly fixed on him.





The only one who didn’t—Robinson—was turned toward Caleb on the inbounds, not fully toward Rowan, who seeing the way to his left blocked pulled out an audible, drifted straight toward the basket on Caleb’s right. Barnes-Thompkins, meanwhile, who was way too far to worry about anything going on with Barber, was seemingly caught by a slight ball-fake by Caleb, while Barnes-Thompkins is completely zoned in on Barber.





These two steps forward were just enough to keep blocking Robinson from shifting down to cut off the passing lane while also giving Rowan far more space under the basket than he ever should have had.




The only thing last-chance for once Caleb found him was for Robinson to jump over him, but Rowan went straight up, releasing the ball with at least .8 left on the clock. By the time the ball fell through the net, the buzzer had sounded. BC 72, NC State 73.

This is a tough loss for everyone on the Eagles, but possibly none more than Christian. No one can blame him for one mistake made by a freshman—you can’t do anything about that. The problem is that this has been an entire season defined by inexperience. Everyone knew it was going to be a long year of rebuilding with a new crop of freshmen, but by this point in the season, there needs to be some tangible sign of progress. With BC losing out on another recruit this week—Mfiondu Kabengele, a three-star player who last week had reportedlyluc limited his options to BC and FSU, but announced on Twitter around noon on Wednesday that he would be going to become a Seminole—the future of building up also isn’t looking much brighter.

The Eagles will get one more shot at that win on Saturday, when Clifford and Carter will both play the final regular-season games of their long collegiate careers. In some ways, desire to pick up a win for them—especially Clifford, who has put his heart and soul into this season—may ignite BC to come out firing. Then there’s also the chance we’ll see a team that is sick of losing, sick of getting beat up by bigger, stronger opponents week after week.

If Clifford has anything to say about it, BC won’t be going down in the record books for the wrong reason. But that may not be enough.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

March 4, 2016