Top Story, Men's Basketball

Eagles Lead Wire to Wire Against Syracuse in Home Finale

On Wednesday night—for the second time in less than a week—Conte Forum played host to a Senior Day celebration that failed to include any seniors. Because of the program’s decline and the late hiring of Jim Christian, Boston College’s freshman class from the 2014-15 season consisted of just one player—Idy Diallo—who has since transferred. While the staff chose to honor its five senior managers, the ceremony felt largely empty—a reminder of a past in which the Eagles had very few positive achievements worth celebrating.

Fortunately for BC, once the game started, the team’s present took the floor and came out swinging. Buoyed by a scorching shooting start—the Eagles hit six of their first nine 3-point attempts—BC raced out to a 27-14 lead over Syracuse over the course of the first 11 minutes of play, reminding everyone in attendance that the future doesn’t look so bleak for Christian and Co. And when the Eagles came out of the locker room at halftime and turned a slim three-point lead into a 13-point advantage with 11 minutes remaining, they put the Orange away for good, coasting to a 85-70 win.

The victory clinched the program’s first winning season since 2010-11, ending a seven-year stretch of futility that saw the Eagles finish the 2015-16 season 0-18 in conference play. Ky Bowman led the way with 23 points, while Jerome Robinson added 22 points and seven assists of his own, marking the third time this season that both of BC’s backcourt stars finished with over 20 points.

Christian was highly pleased with the effort of his squad, particularly given that they were coming off of a deflating loss to Miami, in which the Eagles led by 14 points with 6:16 remaining.

“To bounce back and play well and not doubt yourself, that’s a huge step for our program,” he said after the game. “That’s not something that would have happened previously.”

After Franklin Howard hit a 3-pointer to start the scoring spree, BC (17-13, 7-10 Atlantic Coast) scored the next 10 points, highlighted by a nasty dunk in transition from Steffon Mitchell and a corner triple from Jordan Chatman.

As the first half unfolded, BC’s offense kicked into high gear. The Eagles had clearly made tempo a point of emphasis in its pregame preparations, as Bowman sought out every opportunity to push the ball up the court, whether off a turnover or a defensive rebound. But in addition to attacking Syracuse (18-12, 7-10) in transition, BC also did quite well in the half court against Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone, showing excellent perimeter ball movement and a determination to enter the ball to the free throw line on every possession.

By the 8:45 mark in the first half, BC had stormed out to a 27-14 lead, thanks to that potent half court offense. The team assisted on seven of nine baskets up to that point, with Bowman and Robinson each tallying three dimes apiece, taking turns picking apart the zone from the free throw line. Bowman—who finished the first half with 17 points and five made 3-pointers—hit three triples in that stretch, concluding the run by splashing a deep trey from a few steps inside the hash mark, right in front of Boeheim.

The only reason Syracuse was even able to stay in the game was the play of Tyus Battle. The sophomore guard—who finished with a game-high 29 points, hit five 3-pointers and sunk 10-of-11 free throws—hit a trio of long balls to keep the Orange within striking distance, primed for a comeback.

And with six minutes left in the half, Syracuse mounted its assault. Trailing, 34-22, it went on a 10-0 run over the next four minutes—capped by a quick-strike transition three by Battle—to cut the Eagles’ lead down to a single point. A step-back Bowman 3-pointer allowed BC to stem the tide a little bit right before the half, but the team went into the locker room only leading, 40-37. Despite a full half of impeccable offensive execution, the Eagles had just a narrow three-point lead to show for it.

But Christian remained confident in his troops, delivering his plan of attack—notably to feature Chatman.

“At halftime, we said: `Chatty you’re going win this game,” he said of his junior sharpshooter. “Against the zone, he’s one of the better zone-buster players in the country.”

And true to his coach’s word, Chatman—who finished with 16 points and sank 5-of-10 3-point attempts—hit a pair of threes in the first four minutes of the half to bump the Eagles’ lead back up to nine, giving the team a 50-41 advantage.

After a Pascal Chukwu layup cut the lead to eight points with 12:30 remaining, Robinson put his foot on the gas. The Eagles’ junior guard dribbled around a screen by Nik Popovic and splashed a 3-pointer before getting a steal and fastbreak dunk on the next possession, giving BC a 13-point lead. The Conte Forum crowd—which saw the Eagles finish 14-3 in the building this season, the team’s most home wins since 2008-09—grew loud, drowning out the strong contingent of Orange fans that had made the trip up to Boston.

Robinson’s outburst effectively sealed the victory for the Eagles, who went back and forth with the Orange over the remaining 12 minutes. Boeheim’s team hashed its deficit to as little as seven points, but couldn’t overcome the fact that essentially all of its offense came from Battle and Howard, along with Oshae Brissett. The three players scored 64 of Syracuse’s 70 points and took all but four of the team’s shots.

“The bottom line is we’ve got three guys that are doing the scoring. We don’t have other guys that are scoring,” Boeheim said. “This team’s battled all year. They’re trying as hard as they can. I can’t even get upset.”

The last seven minutes of regulation turned a bit chippy, as a combined 13 fouls stunted the game’s rhythm. The teams shot a combined 24 free throws over this stretch. Syracuse pressed after every made basket, frequently fouling. On possessions where the Orange didn’t foul, BC looked to bleed the clock, instead of going through its normal offense.

But the late minutes did include a few highlights. On one possession, when Syracuse pressed, Popovic got an outlet pass, dribbled up the floor and dished a slick behind the back pass to a stunned Bowman for a layup. And on the last possession of the game, Luka Kraljevic hit his first 3-pointer in ACC play, as the shot clock expired.

For the game, BC shot an impressive 14-of-27 from beyond the arc. The game snapped a five-game streak in which BC failed to top 40 percent shooting from long range, the team’s longest such streak of the season. A resurgence in shooting would be a welcome site for a BC team that lost to Miami in part because of a 4-for-17 perimeter shooting mark.

Though Mitchell left the game late in the second half with a hamstring contusion, this game leaves BC with more hope than cause for concern. An Eagles’ win on Saturday at Florida State (19-10, 8-9), coupled with a Syracuse loss to No. 18 Clemson (22-7, 11-6), would allow BC to finish 10th in the final conference standings. That finish would pit BC against Pittsburgh (8-23, 0-18) next Tuesday in the first round of the ACC tournament at Barclays Center.

Without underestimating an opponent too much, that kind of matchup would give BC a real chance to win an ACC tournament game for the first time in three years. And given all the painful memories buried in the past—dredged up at tonight’s feeble Senior Night—that kind of result would be all that the present team could ask for.

Featured Image by Keith Caroll / Heights Editor

February 28, 2018