Men's Basketball, Top Story

Tabbs Sparks Second-Half Comeback in Season-Opening Win Over Milwaukee

Despite losing Jerome Robinson to the NBA, there was reason to think that Boston College men’s basketball would pick up it where it left off in 2017-18—the program’s first winning season in seven years. After all, the Eagles returned four starters and reeled in Jairus Hamilton, their first ESPN 100 recruit since 2002. But during the first half of Tuesday night’s season opener, BC looked hardly reminiscent of the team that upset Duke and made a run to the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.

Like many of the Eagles’ non-conference opponents from last year, Milwaukee tried to outshoot BC—the Panthers did just that, in the first half at least. Led by DeAndre Abram, Milwaukee hit six of its 10 shots from beyond the arc in the opening frame. Meanwhile, BC sputtered out of the gates, shooting just 8-of-28 from the field, including 1-of-10 from downtown, during that span. After scoring the first two points of the game, the Eagles fell victim to a 17-4 Panthers run—one that took the life out of Conte Forum and paved the way for Milwaukee’s 10-point halftime lead.

In a game that college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy gave BC a 94 percent chance of winning, the Eagles desperately needed a spark. Ky Bowman got the ball rolling, but it was a freshman who stole the spotlight—not Hamilton, but Wynston Tabbs, a three-star recruit from Leonardtown, Md. Following a second-half opening Panthers 3-pointer, BC orchestrated a 14-2 run. Tabbs accounted for nine of those points, eventually drilling a go-ahead triple. The freshman guard finished with 16 points, and the Eagles never looked back, outscoring Milwaukee, 46-16, in the latter portion of play, coasting to a 73-53 victory.  

The Panthers (0-1) entered the season having lost their top-three scorers—Jeremiah Bell (14.1 points per game), Brock Stull (13.4 ppg), and Bryce Nze (10.3 ppg)—to the transfer market. Yet, over the course of the opening 20 minutes of play, the departures were hardly noticeable.

Five different Milwaukee players etched their name into the scorecard in the first seven and a half minutes of play, three of whom knocked down at least one 3-pointer. Using the dribble-drive, the Panthers attracted BC (1-0) defenders into the paint, thereby creating space on the perimeter—a gameplan that several Eagles opponents employed last season, given BC’s relatively weak 3-point defense.

On the other end of the court, the Eagles hardly experienced the same fortune. In fact, with the exception of Tabbs, no one was really at their best.

“First games are hard,” head coach Jim Christian told reporters after the game. “Guys are on the court for the first time. They’re excited to play. We obviously didn’t make many shots—we made the right plays, just didn’t make the shots in the first half.”

BC misfired on eight of its first 11 shots and, quite frankly, looked rusty on offense. Nik Popovic missed two point-blank layups, Hamilton was off the mark on a pair of corner 3-pointers, and  Jordan Chatman couldn’t get a shot to fall. Trailing 17-6, the Eagles finally strung together some baskets, starting with Hamilton’s first-career 3-pointer.

BC traded field goals with Milwaukee, gradually closing the double-digit gap. Even though the Eagles were down, Christian continued to rotate players in and out of the lineup. Within the first 13 minutes of the half, 10 BC players had already seen the court.

“All you want from these early games is to get experience,” Christian said. “I don’t really care about the score—whether we we got down or what. It’s a great chance to grow, to show maturity and grow.”  

Eventually the Eagles’ offense flipped the switch, but for the moment, it was far from efficient. Ten of its 27 first-half points came at the charity stripe, as shooters across the board failed to establish any sort of rhythm. Steffon Mitchell might have had it the worst: The back half of the period, the sophomore forward missed three-straight mid-range jumpers before jacking up a 3-pointer from the top of the arc that promptly hit back iron.

On the back of six-straight free throws, BC drew within 10 points in the final minutes of the half. Popovic and Chatman converted layups to maintain the Eagles’ single-digit deficit. But on the last possession of the half, Darius Roy—who recorded 11 of the Panthers’ final 20 points of the period—sprinted by Jordan Chatman, pulled back, and confidently drilled a buzzer-beating fadeaway jumper to give Milwaukee a 10-point lead heading into the break.

“When we got down, we didn’t panic—we didn’t play crazy, we didn’t let it spread throughout the whole game,” the fifth-year Eagles coach said.

After Jake Wright netted a 3-pointer to start the second half—the Panthers’ seventh of the game—BC turned the game upside down with 14-straight points. It all started on the defensive end. A monster Mitchell block and a Bowman steal led to a pair of Tabbs field goal attempts—one of which resulted in a trip to the free throw line.

Following a couple Popovic free throws, Tabbs dialed up a long-range 2-pointer, crossing over to the right side of the arc to create space for his release. Mitchell let out a roar, as Milwaukee called a timeout, in attempt to stop the bleeding. Even Chatman—one of the Eagles’ most stoic players—was feeling the moment. The 25-year-old senior, who practically never dunks in-game, tried to posterize 6-foot-8 Panthers center Amir Allen. His one-handed slam was a few inches short of the rim, but, if anything, it further energized BC.

Popovic rounded out the run with an and-one conversion, joining Tabbs as the second Eagle to enter double figures, handing BC its first lead since the opening minutes in the process. Thanks to a two-handed Carson Warren-Newsome flush, Milwaukee quickly reclaimed its one-point advantage. But a couple possessions later, Mitchell—who finished with 14 rebounds, one shy of his career high—corralled an offensive board and dished the ball outside to Tabbs. Without hesitation, the freshman drained the wide-open triple. BC was in the driver’s seat again—and this time it wasn’t giving up the keys.

Bowman made his presence felt with a highlight-reel block near the baseline and a stutter-step hesitation move that set the stage for an easy layup. The junior, who only shot 1-of-5 from the floor in the first half, racked up 15 of his 19 points in the second period. Chatman finally got going, as well. With a bit more than eight minutes remaining, the senior connected on his first 3-pointer of the season, extending the Eagles’ lead to nine. It only grew from there, as BC only conceded 16 second-half points. Without the three ball, the Milwaukee offense was obsolete.

In the waning seconds of regulation, Tabbs kicked the ball out to Chris Herren Jr. on the right wing. The freshman caught the pass and nailed a 3-pointer, his first collegiate basket—a fitting end to the Eagles’ dominant second-half performance.

While it certainly wasn’t pretty, BC walked out of Conte Forum with a decisive victory, one that could have been even more lopsided had Chatman, Hamilton, and Mitchell been on their game. BC might not have Robinson, but it sure does have more depth than usual—and it could very well have another star blooming in the backcourt.

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Editor

Photos by Celine Lim and Nana Kusi / Heights Editor and For The Heights

November 7, 2018