Every fan, writer, and analyst that follows Boston College men’s basketball knew what was coming.
The Eagles were leading fifth-seeded North Carolina State by 17 points, less than a minute into the second half—typically a margin that all but guarantees victory. But, in reality, Wednesday afternoon’s second round bout was far from over. Head coach Jim Christian’s team has struggled to close out games all year, most notably down the stretch of the season. In fact, entering the mid-week matchup, the Eagles had blown second-half leads in two of their past three road/neutral site games. Just 24 hours earlier, BC came astonishingly close to letting a once 20-point advantage go to waste against Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament opener.
N.C. State shot the lights out in the second half, knocking down 22 of its 30 field goal attempts in the period, chipping away at the Eagles’ substantial lead. BC bent, but did not break, recording a respectable 50 percent clip from the floor in the final frame. Even when the Wolfpack orchestrated a 14-2 run to tie the game with just over four minutes remaining, the Eagles answered. Led by Jerome Robinson, Ky Bowman, and Nik Popovic—who teamed up to score a total of 65 points—BC went toe-to-toe with N.C. State in the final stages of regulation.
Of the three, Robinson, one of the five finalists for the Jerry West Award, stole the spotlight. The junior drilled one of the biggest shots of his career, forced a crucial turnover, and iced the game at the line after Wolfpack guard Markell Johnson went full-on Chris Weber and called a timeout with his team down two and seven seconds left in the contest—because N.C. State didn’t actually have any timeouts in its pocket, the sophomore was administered a technical foul. Two years removed from losing all 19 of its conference games, BC held on for a 91-87 victory, marking the first time since 2005-06—the year that the Eagles joined the ACC—that the program has strung together back-to-back conference tournament wins.
Just like the teams’ first meeting back on Feb. 20, the Wolfpack (21-11, 11-7 Atlantic Coast) got off on the wrong foot. Not only did N.C. State turn the ball over on its opening possession, but it also missed seven of its first 10 shots. BC (19-14, 7-11) capitalized, ripping off a 17-7 run over the course of the game’s first six and a half minutes of play.
The Eagles ran up and down the floor, recording transition buckets in bunches. In the process, they regained their stroke from downtown. After converting a season-worst two 3-pointers against GT, BC connected on a trio of long-range shots in the span of just two minutes and 15 seconds. Bowman fronted the charge with back-to-back triples, logging eight points during the Eagles’ scoring spurt. But what BC was doing in the paint was debatably more impressive.
Fresh off a career-high 20 points in the Eagles’ first round victory, Nik Popovic was playing the best basketball of his career. The 6-foot-10 center, who has drastically improved on the pick and roll this season, cut to the basket and finished at the rim with ease. On one possession, he even brought the ball up the court, leading BC in transition. Right when it looked like Popovic was about to take over, the sophomore hit the floor.
Following two-straight inside baskets, the big man found himself fighting for an offensive board. Simultaneously colliding with Bowman and diving for the ball, Popovic appeared to tweak a muscle in his shin, achilles, or ankle. Whatever it was exactly, the sophomore was in pain, holding his the lower half of his leg with trainers and head coach Jim Christian at his side. After a few minutes, Popovic got up on his own and hopped on one leg to the bench.
“The way he hopped off the court, I knew he was coming back,” Christian said, per BCEagles.com.
The medical staff wasn’t convinced. Popovic went to the locker room for x-rays, and even though they were negative, he still missed a handful of minutes on the floor. Since Luka Kraljevic was sitting out his second-consecutive game with a concussion, Johncarlos Reyes was tasked with filling the void in the interior. Immediately, the redshirt sophomore embraced the challenge.
Playing what was probably the best game of his career, the backup center scored seconds out of the injury timeout and ended up going 5-for-5 from the field, giving Popovic a breather whenever necessary. As a whole, the frontcourt was more formidable than ever: Popovic and Reyes racked up a combined 25 points, and Steffon Mitchell hauled in a season-high 15 rebounds, six of which were on the offensive glass.
Toward the end of the period, Robinson made a habit of attacking the paint. On multiple occasions, the 6-foot-5 combo guard turned on the jets and absorbed contact on his way to the cup, either getting the roll or the call—and sometimes both. Thanks to Robinson and the big fellas, BC outscored the Wolfpack, 26-12 in the paint in the first frame.
The Eagles polished off a complete half of basketball with a 7-4 run to enter the break with a 14-point advantage. Aside from a few lapses on the perimeter, BC’s defense was practically flawless. Somewhat unsurprisingly, that was far from the case in the back half of play.
Jordan Chatman got things going with a 3-pointer to up the Eagles’ lead to 17. But from that point forward, BC was playing with its back against the wall. Slowly but surely, N.C. State made up ground, riding a four-headed scoring platoon. Allerik Freeman and Sam Hunt caught fire from 3-point land, Torin Dorn made a living in the lane, and Omer Yurtseven asserted all seven feet of himself down low. Guided by the pass-driven Johnson, those four erased N.C. State’s double-digit deficit, tying the game with just over four minutes left.
That’s when things really got interesting.
With two minutes on the clock, Freeman crossed up Robinson and stepped back for a big-time 3-pointer to tie the game at 80 apiece. Moments later, Robinson tipped the scale with a triple of his own, only to watch Freeman drain his second-straight outside shot. After the opponents traded a few more points, Christian called a timeout with 33.7 seconds remaining.
Robinson milked the clock, infiltrated the arc, neglected a screen, reached his sweet spot, and pulled up from mid-range for the go-ahead bucket. On the ensuing inbound play, the junior timed his jump perfectly, in turn, getting a piece of Freeman’s pass. Fortunately for the Eagles, the ball bounced Bowman’s way. Once fouled, the sophomore hit a pair of free throws to extend BC’s lead to four.
Caught in the emotion of the game, Johnson made a bee-line to the hoop for a layup and, without hesitation, called a ghost timeout, costing his team the game and perhaps a shot at the Big Dance.
The Eagles, on the other hand, are still alive. Up next is a Clemson team that’s lost four of its last six and barely squeaked out a four-point win in Conte Forum in January, prior to losing Donte Grantham for the year. Christian’s attention has shifted to the Tigers, but he wants his guys to look at the bigger picture.
“I said this yesterday, they need to start enjoying these moments,” he said. “I want these guys to enjoy this moment…”
Featured Image and Photos by Frank Franklin II / AP Photo