Men's Basketball, Top Story

Eagles Blow 14-Point Lead at Miami, Postseason Chances Grow Slimmer

A couple weeks removed from falling to Boston College men’s basketball on the road, Miami, losers of two of its last three, hosted the Eagles on Saturday afternoon, needing a win to stay in the hunt for a top-four seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament. Having been outrebounded by an average of eight boards in each of its last three games, head coach Jim Larrañaga sacrificed speed for size, starting Ja’Quan Newton in place of Chris Lykes. The strategy proved quite effective, as the Hurricanes racked up 39 rebounds—12 more than BC—including 15 on the offensive end of the floor. Yet, when it mattered most, the 5-foot-7 guard came up bigger than everyone else on the floor.

With his team down 14 with less than six minutes to play, Lykes—who had been getting beat by Ky Bowman all day—buckled down on both sides of the court. The freshman logged 11 of his 15 points down the stretch, seven of which came at the charity stripe. Lykes drew whistle after whistle, forcing Bowman to foul out with under two minutes to go. Without their point guard, the Eagles were helpless. Jordan Chatman was tasked with handling the Miami press and struggled to even get the ball up the floor. Eventually, the Eagles advanced the rock past half court, only to see their big men falter at the free throw line.

BC—a team that, prior to Tuesday’s loss to North Carolina State, was the ACC’s best free throw shooting unit in league play—missed 11 shots at the line, including three in the final minute of regulation, the last of which of gave the Hurricanes 18 seconds to set up a game-winning shot. Miami, namely Lonnie Walker IV, didn’t disappoint: After draining the clock, the NBA prospect dribbled the ball near the top of the arc, hinting that he was going to attack the paint—instead, he stepped back and launched a 3-pointer with four seconds remaining. The ball swooshed through the net, all but sealing the deal, considering that the Eagles hadn’t made a field goal in close to three minutes and had no timeouts at their disposal. Nik Popovic inbounded the ball to Jerome Robinson, but the junior couldn’t get a handle on the pass before the buzzer sounded—the comeback was complete, Miami had won, 79-78.

The teams combined for just five field goals in the final three minutes of the game, but the first half was nothing short of a track meet. Firing on all cylinders, BC (16-13, 6-10 Atlantic Coast) shot 66 percent from the field in the opening frame, all while featuring a balanced scoring attack.

Of the seven Eagles to see action in the period, six got on the board. Days after taking a hard spill and apparently hurting his left elbow, Jerome Robinson looked like himself again, scoring from everywhere on the court. The Raleigh, N.C. native got BC going with a layup and led the charge with a game-high 30 points, but he was hardly the talk of the afternoon. Nik Popovic, who had only reached double figures once in the previous six games, scored 12 points in his first 12 minutes on the court. The 6-foot-10 center cut to the basket, using his acceleration to finish at the rim, utilized his post moves, and even knocked down a baseline jumper.

Although the Hurricanes (20-8, 9-7) only converted 52.8 percent of their shot attempts—a mark that would normally ensure victory—they were still going toe-to-toe with BC, all thanks to their work down low. Led by Dewan Huell, Anthony Lawrence II, and Ebuka Izundu, Miami made a home for itself in the paint. An abundance of offensive boards gifted the Hurricanes a handful of second-chance opportunities, and they made the most of them—Miami tallied 15 points of the kind in the first half alone. Defensively, the only thing that the Eagles had going for them was their perimeter defense. After conceding 10 or more 3-pointers to five-consecutive opponents, head coach Jim Christian employed a 2-3 zone to pull the Hurricanes off the arc, and it worked to perfection. BC held Miami to just two 3-pointers in the first half and only six on the day.

The Eagles and Hurricanes traded baskets throughout the entire half, but BC got the last laugh. Reclaiming the lead for the first time in more than 11 minutes, Robinson hit a fadeaway jumper in the waning seconds of the period to cap a 6-0 Eagles run and send Christian’s team into the break with at one-possession advantage.

For a while, it looked like the second half would model that of the teams’ last meeting. All of a sudden, Miami went cold, at one point shooting a mere 21.7 percent from the field in the half. Not only did the Hurricanes continue to chuck up missed 3-pointers, but they also had a hard time finding the same success they once had inside. BC stepped up its game in the key, tripling its rebound total in the half. Steffon Mitchell and Bowman were at the forefront of the movement, both snaring four boards in the period.

Walker IV didn’t score for the first 16 minutes of the frame—it wasn’t until then that Miami really started to piece together any sort of run. A few possessions down the road, Lykes scooted by Bowman for a layup and Dejan Vasiljevic drilled a 3-pointer. Just like that, the Hurricanes had cut their once 14-point deficit in half. Robinson and Popovic fought back with a series of buckets, but the pair of scoring plays served as nothing more than a band-aid on a wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding.

With under two minutes to go, Lykes drew a Bowman charge, sidelining the Eagles’ electric point guard with five personals. Soon after, the freshman absorbed contact on his way to the basket, causing Mitchell to be called for the blocking foul. Cashing in at the stripe, Lykes used both free throws to shrink BC’s lead to three. He’d sink a couple more approximately a minute later, this time closing the gap to one, ultimately paving the way for Walker IV’s game-winner.

The loss gives the Eagles a taste of their own medicine. After all, they turned a six-point deficit into a nail-biting one-possession victory in the span of just four minutes when the two teams met earlier this month—only now, it comes at an increased dosage. Up double-digits with less than six minutes to go, the Eagles had Saturday’s game in hand. There will be a lot of questions concerning what happened toward the end of regulation. Now that its NCAA Tournament bubble has popped, and the NIT is up in the air, Christian’s team will have a lot of time to come up with some answers.

Featured Image by Pedro Portal / Miami Herald via AP Photo

February 24, 2018