Top Story, Men's Basketball

Eagles Lose to Clemson in Regular Season Finale

Over the course of the season, Ky Bowman’s value to Boston College men’s basketball has exponentially increased.

In his transformation from unheralded recruit and former football player to arguably the best player on the roster—a process so rapid, it essentially forced top recruit Ty Graves to transfer from the program in December, bowing out in the face of rapidly dwindling playing time—the Atlantic Coast Conference has been introduced to a point guard bursting with fast-twitch athleticism and blessed with deep shooting range. Averaging 17.9 points per game and shooting over 47 percent from beyond the arc in conference play, Bowman’s on-court performance has served as a living, breathing testament to his value. But Saturday afternoon against Clemson, in the Eagles’ regular-season finale, it was Bowman’s absence from the court that provided the latest reminder of his importance to Jim Christian’s team.

With 6:41 remaining in the first half and the Eagles trailing the Tigers 22-20, Bowman picked up an offensive foul on a reckless drive to the rim, the freshman’s third foul of the half. Though he had scored just two points at that point, Bowman had teamed with Jerome Robinson to spearhead an aggressive perimeter defense that had left Clemson’s offense discombobulated and forced seven turnovers—especially impressive since the Tigers entered the game with the 16th lowest turnover rate in the nation.

Forced to watch the remaining seven minutes of the half from the bench, Bowman looked on as the Tigers found their footing on offense and choked off BC’s offense, tilting all of their defensive attention toward Robinson. Drilling 8-of-9 shots from the field during the stretch, while the Eagles went just 3-of-10, the Tigers ended the half on a dominant 20-6 run. As senior guard Avry Holmes drilled the third of three consecutive 3-pointers over the last 90 seconds of the frame—sending Clemson to a 42-26 halftime advantage—the absence of Bowman on the court loomed large.

Ultimately sunk by this crucial stretch late in the first half, the Eagles fell 82-68 on Saturday afternoon—with Bowman’s extended absence providing the margin of defeat—dropping their 14th consecutive conference game at Clemson (16-14, 6-12 Atlantic Coast). With a rotation hampered by 24 personal fouls—including an obscene 13 committed in the game’s first 13 minutes—BC (9-22, 2-16) cemented its third consecutive season in the basement of the nation’s most difficult conference. The loss marked the 13th time the team has lost by double digits this season.

“In the last four minutes [of the first half] we just fell apart,” Christian told reporters after the game.

The Eagles opened the game with unusual aggression on the defensive end of the floor, with their guards extending pressure well beyond the 3-point line in the half court and frequently denying passes to the wings. Despite a shaky offensive start, this defense gave the Eagles easy chances at points, forcing turnovers and allowing the team to outscore Clemson 12-0 in fastbreak points over the course of the game. Connar Tava—after missing a few early minutes with a sprained ankle—played excellent defense on Jaron Blossomgame. Clemson’s best player—a 6-foot-8 small ball power forward—didn’t score in the game’s first 12 minutes, despite his height and quickness advantage over the 6-foot-6 Western Michigan transfer.

On the offensive end of the floor, even though Bowman and Robinson struggled with their shots—the duo scored just four points in the first half—they effectively ran pick and roll in the half court, leveraging the attention paid to them by finding Mo Jeffers and Nik Popovic on open cuts to the rim. Prior to Bowman’s third foul, this formula kept BC within striking distance.

But after losing one half of their dynamic guard tandem, neutering their offensive potency, the Eagles stagnated as Clemson soared. In the half’s last seven minutes, Blossomgame—who finished with 17 points and seven boards—scored six points and assisted all three of Holmes’ triples, bulling his way to the rim for layups and carving the Eagles’ defense up with incisive passes from the low post out to shooters. Controlling the offense in a way Robinson couldn’t during that stretch—and receiving significantly more aid from his teammates—Clemson’s senior leader allowed his team to essentially end the game after just 20 minutes.

Returning to the floor for the second half, BC failed to cut the lead below 11 points, falling behind by as many as 21. Though the team shot 56.3 percent from the floor in the frame, it failed to slow the offensive momentum that Clemson built at the end of the first half, as the Tigers scored 40 points in the half.   

Trailing 66-45 with 8:09 remaining, the Eagles attempted to at least offer some resistance. A quick 9-0 run, spurred by Jordan Chatman—who scored 12 of his team-high 17 points in the second stanza—and A.J. Turner forced Clemson coach Brad Brownell to call timeout, with his team’s lead trimmed to just 12 points. But another 3-pointer from Holmes after an offensive rebound —the ACC’s leading long-range shooter hit 5-of-8 triples during the game, scoring 17 points—stopped the momentum and allowed Clemson’s seniors to enjoy their final game at Littlejohn Coliseum, freed from the worry that they would suffer another heartbreaking defeat in a season full of them.

In addition to frequent fouls—the team committed 16 more fouls than Clemson—the Eagles were plagued by an inability to protect the defensive glass. Holmes—a 6-foot-2 point guard—grabbed three of the Tigers’ eight offensive rebounds in the second half, en route to a career high 10 boards. With their eyes focused on Blossomgame in the paint, BC defenders failed to box out the Tigers’ perimeter players.

Robinson and Bowman finished with a combined 19 points, just the third time that the duo has finished with less than 20 total points in conference play. Robinson—the ACC’s fourth leading scorer—only had nine points at the time he fouled out with two minutes remaining.

The afternoon wasn’t entirely negative, however. Turner—who finished with 10 points—hit two jumpers at the foul line off the dribble. The shots, while ultimately not significantly impacting the outcome of the game, provided evidence of the sophomore forward’s developing midrange shot. Going forward, it will be crucial for him to continue exploring an in-between game, resisting a simple dependency on 3-pointers and layups. Popovic also looked more comfortable setting a screen and rolling to the basket than he has for most of the season, a critical part of the development of any young big man. Expanding his game beyond the isolation post up will be crucial to his future role in the program.

After the game, Christian made sure to note the upward trajectory of his program, even in the midst of another lengthy skid.

“Anybody would tell you we’ve improved a lot,” he said. “We’re just a couple of pieces away. You don’t build these things overnight.”

What Christian says about his team is definitely true. The thoughts of those close to the program are certainly in a much more positive place than they were at the conclusion of last season’s conference play, where the Eagles rode an 18-game ACC losing streak to a place forever recorded in infamy. Robinson and Turner, who emerged as foundational pieces last season, have been joined by Bowman and Popovic this season as keys to the future. Compared to a season in which Eli Carter occasionally hijacked the team’s offense and prevented much cohesive play from the young players, this season has seen Robinson and Bowman develop an undeniable on-court chemistry, highlighted by a perfect connection on an alley oop to Robinson late in the second half.

Ultimately, given his ability and potential, the growth of Bowman will determine where the Eagles head next season, with the freshman point guard seeking to emulate Robinson’s skill leap between freshman and sophomore year.

And if he can increase his value to this program beyond the level showcased on Saturday afternoon, the Eagles can finally look forward to a day when ending conference play with only a 14-game losing streak isn’t seen as a huge indicator of progress.  

Featured Image by Robert Franklin / AP Photo

March 4, 2017