Top Story, Men's Basketball

Popovic Tip-In Beats Buzzer, Lifts BC Over Auburn at MSG

Jim Christian had seen this movie before. After Connar Tava found A.J. Turner slicing through a ball-watching Auburn defense and the sophomore from Mount Clemens, Michigan split the resultant free throws, Boston College men’s basketball held a tenuous one-point lead on the Tigers. With just 13.5 seconds remaining, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl put the ball in the hands of Danjel Purifoy. Out of options, the freshman forward drove into the body of Tava and threw up a shot, drawing contact.

As the referee blew his whistle, Christian’s eyes grew wide and his shoulders slumped. A replay of the distressing 65-63 loss to America East opponent Hartford on Friday night was unfolding. Christian found himself reliving the lowest moments of his BC tenure on the court of his hometown arena: Madison Square Garden. But even after Purifoy calmly sank both shots and gave Auburn a 71-70 lead, not grazing the rim on either attempt, the Eagles still had seven seconds remaining.

With no timeouts remaining, Ky Bowman took the inbounds pass and raced the length of the court. Careening into the paint, he threw a wild layup off of the glass. The ball hit the backboard and grazed the front of the rim, seemingly sealing the Eagles’ fate. But that’s when this game broke from the established narrative. As he was shoved underneath the rim, freshman center Nik Popovic deftly tapped home Bowman’s miss with his right hand with 0.2 seconds left on the clock, sending his bench into a frenzy.

Popovic’s miraculous tip-in sent the Eagles to a 72-71 victory over Auburn (6-2) in Monday night’s inaugural Under Armour Reunion at the World’s Most Famous Arena. The win snapped a particularly rough two-game losing streak for BC (5-5) and gave the team its first nonconference victory against a Power Five opponent since November of 2013.

Jerome Robinson led the way for the Eagles with 23 points and 11 rebounds—his first career double-double—though he nearly amassed a dubious triple-double, finishing with eight turnovers. Purifoy paced the Tigers with a career-high 27 points and four 3-pointers.

Facing an opponent that had won six of its first seven games and was known for its warp-speed offense and aggressive press on defense, the Eagles shocked the MSG crowd by landing a quick flurry of punches right after the opening tip. By the first media timeout, they had a 12-2 lead. Quick, decisive ball movement characterized the opening few minutes, as BC guards made a concerted effort to push the ball up the floor off of rebounds and even after made shots. Turner keyed the early run with his playmaking and Robinson added four points.

After Auburn cut the lead to three on two T.J. Lang triples in the span of nine seconds, Bowman exploded, scoring eight straight points for BC to help his team claim a 24-14 lead midway through the half. The freshman point guard converted a steal into a breakaway dunk and splashed two 3-pointers, part of the best game of his young career. He finished with 15 points, played physical defense on Auburn’s guards, and attacked the basket with more control than in any other game this season.

But around this point in the game, Auburn’s full court press began giving BC fits. Though the Eagles had seven turnovers during the time they established their lead, they had still been able to generate some flow on offense. Now, even inbounding the ball became a challenge. With four turnovers in the minute following Bowman’s last triple, the Eagles devolved into complete disorder.

In the first half, the team had 16 turnovers, with Robinson responsible for six of them. Auburn scored 14 points off of those miscues in the first frame, allowing them to stay close in a half where they shot under 40 percent. The Eagles led for virtually the entire half—and 34:31 over the course of the game—but the Tigers entered the locker room at the intermission trailing just 43-39.

With the Eagles keeping Auburn’s perimeter scorers Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper out of the paint—the duo shot only two free throws in the half after averaging a combined 12.7 attempts per game entering the night—Purifoy carried the Tigers with 18 points. Robinson nearly had his double-double by halftime—16 points and nine rebounds—but the incessant turnovers prevented the Eagles from putting away a team that should’ve otherwise been trailing by double figures.

The second half was like a prizefight, with both teams exchanging blows and neither able to establish secure dominance. Auburn’s guards came out of the locker room with a mindset to attack the hoop, particularly Heron. In a 40 second spurt about five minutes into the closing stanza, the 6-foot-5 guard bulldozed his way to six free-throw attempts. Additionally, after consistently getting to the rim in the first half, the Eagles encountered much more resistance. Sophomore Horace Spencer hosted his own personal block party in the paint, finishing the night with six blocks.

With BC holding a 60-55 advantage halfway through the period, the Tigers made their move, going on a 6-0 run to seize their first lead of the night with six minutes remaining. And after BC reclaimed a narrow 65-64 lead with three minutes to go on a Bowman free throw, Auburn responded with a pick-and-pop 3-pointer from Purifoy and a gorgeous layup from Heron.

Down 69-65, the Eagles didn’t panic. A pair of freshmen held the ship steady when it seemed like the team was veering off course. Bowman converted a difficult floater in the lane, hanging in the air for an extra beat and lofting the ball over the top of Spencer. Then, Popovic laid in a nice pocket pass from Bowman with a minute to go, rewarding Christian for playing the Bosnian freshman over Mo Jeffers so late in the game.

From there, the last minute unfolded in ways both familiar and shocking to fans of the team, with Purifoy’s late free throws topped by Popovic’s heroics.

Avoiding a third consecutive gut-wrenching defeat, the Eagles can finally exhale. Though far from a complete win—the team committed 22 turnovers and now ranks 316th in the country in turnover percentage per—the resilience and poise shown by such a young team stands in stark contrast to last year’s team, a unit that usually played hard but hadn’t yet discovered the keys to winning in the clutch.

With this victory, Christian has further proof of his players’ capabilities, making games like last Friday’s even more perplexing. But perhaps taking the final step towards winning basketball—and conquering the last few minutes of a close game are undeniably the most difficult—will propel this team to a level where they expect this kind of effort from each other every night.

And if they combine their abilities with this newfound sense of the moment, perhaps the future isn’t quite as alarming as it appeared just a few days ago.  

Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Staff

December 13, 2016