Top Story, Men's Basketball

BC Plays Lockdown Defense in Statement Win Over Florida State

A week ago, Boston College men’s basketball center Nik Popovic played one of his worst games of the season—maybe even his career. The 6-foot-10 big man was bodied up inside by North Carolina’s Luke Maye and continuously outworked on the glass. Logging just 16 minutes, he shot a putrid 2-of-7 from the field. When all was said and done, the Tar Heels outrebounded BC, 58-23, in a 30-point blow out—the Eagles’ worst loss since falling to Florida State, 104-72 last season.

Popovic responded on Saturday, shooting a perfect 6-of-6 and racking up eight rebounds in BC’s bounce-back victory over Dartmouth. After the game, head coach Jim Christian talked about how the Bosnia and Herzegovina native gained a lot of respect in the locker room for his bounce-back performance. But after Monday night’s game against the Seminoles, there’s no doubt he earned even more.

From start to finish, Popovic—who was tasked with guarding Christ Koumadje (7-foot-4) and Mfiondu Kabengele (6-foot-9)—wreaked havoc in the paint. Even though he only recorded five rebounds and the Eagles lost the battle of the boards, his 14 points and career-high five blocks were game-changing to say the least. Popovic and his frontcourt partner Steffon Mitchell routinely disrupted shots inside, forcing FSU to fire away from outside. Unfortunately for the Seminoles, that wasn’t working either. In what was BC’s most impressive defensive outing this year, the Eagles limited FSU to 34 percent from the floor and, despite a great deal of foul trouble, held on for a 81-75 victory—BC’s third win this year in ACC play, its most in a single season since 2014-15.

It was only a matter of seconds before the Eagles (13-6, 3-3 Atlantic Coast), namely Popovic, asserted themselves down low. From the top of the arc, Terance Mann lofted a pass to Koumadje for the alley-oop dunk. Popovic had other plans: Fighting for position inside, he altered the 7-footers’ vertical, resulting in nothing more than a missed layup.

Immediately after the miss, the Seminoles (13-5, 2-4) pressured BC’s backcourt. In response, the Eagles worked the ball around the perimeter, and Popovic found a wide-open Mitchell behind the arc for a triple—one that jumpstarted a 10-3 BC run. Jerome Robinson attacked the lane, and Jordan Chatman began to find his rhythm from 3-point land as the Eagles quickly created separation from their ACC foe.

Mann, FSU’s leading scorer, and C.J. Walker did their best to keep the Seminoles in the game, recording 18 of the team’s 25 first-half points, but no one else could buy a basket. Over the course of the opening 20 minutes of play, FSU shot a mere 25.6 percent from the field—21.8 ticks below its season average—including just 1-of-9 from downtown. To put that in perspective, the Seminoles entered the game converting 37 percent of their long-range shot attempts. BC executed its zone defense to near perfection, tempting FSU’s inside scorers to jack up deep shots and pulling the Seminoles’ sharpshooters off the 3-point line.

After hovering around a 10-point lead for the majority of the first frame, the Eagles made their move with under five minutes left in the half. In large part thanks to its trio of guards, BC strung together a 10-2 run to close out the period. Robinson drilled a step-back jumper, Vin Baker Jr. kissed a layup off the glass, Ky Bowman—who racked up 12 points, nine rebounds, and four assists before intermission—scored on the fastbreak, and Chatman drained a pair of 3-pointers.

The Eagles, a team that made over 50 percent of its first-half shot attempts, including seven of its 12 triples, were well on their way to their 11th home win of the season, and Conte Forum was absolutely loving it. Students, BC alumni, and other Eagles fans were on their feet, as BC trotted into the locker room, up, 41-25, at the break.

As he has time and time again this year, Bowman got things going in the second half, netting a 3-pointer less than 20 seconds into the period. On the ensuing possession, Popovic faked out Koumadje and tacked on two more points after FSU was called for goaltending, extending BC’s lead to a game-high 21. But the Eagles weren’t going to coast to victory, not after committing six fouls in the first five minutes of the second frame.

Soon, FSU was in the bonus. Since the Seminoles’ shots still weren’t falling, head coach Leonard Hamilton’s guys started to penetrate, booking a handful of trips to the charity stripe. By hitting all 12 of its second-half free throw attempts, FSU prevented the game from getting out of hand. Walker continued to get his fair of looks at the hoop, scooting past both Bowman and Robinson. And Braian Angola—who entered the game as the third-highest scorer in ACC play—started to heat up, especially from beyond the arc. Still, the Seminoles only managed to cut their deficit by five or so points.

Although it wasn’t as efficient as it was in the first half, BC’s offense was just as productive in the latter portion of regulation, highlighted by a couple of Robinson jumpers and two emphatic Popovic dunks. With five minutes to go, the Eagles, clinging to a nine-point lead, started to make themselves at home at the free throw line. As FSU tried to claw its way back, BC iced the game by hitting 13 of its final 14 shots from the stripe, efffectively securing its first win over the Seminoles in six years.

The Eagles might have led wire-to-wire, but the victory didn’t come easily whatsoever.

“The courage these guys showed tonight was amazing,” Christian said. “This was a war out there: 40 minutes of pressure, [and] we don’t play a ton of guys. You’ve got to be tough—you’ve got to be mentally tough, you’ve got to be physically tough, and you’ve got to handle the basketball in stretches.”

Perhaps even the word “tough” is an understatement for a frontcourt that outplayed the 16th-tallest team in college basketball and a collective unit that made FSU, less than 24 hours removed from dropping out of the top 25, simply look inferior.

Photos by Kaitlin Meeks and Kaylie Ramirez / Heights Editor and Heights Staff

Featured Image by Melissa Rice / Heights Staff

January 15, 2018