Basketball, Men's Basketball

Eagles Ride Popovic, Improved Defense to Win over Minnesota

The referee’s whistle sounded as he signaled for a Minnesota travel, and Boston College men’s basketball forward Steffon Mitchell immediately turned away from the play, letting loose a ferocious roar. Then, in a fitting end to the Eagles’ game against the Gophers, with the second half winding down, Nik Popovic was substituted out, which was met with raucous applause from the Conte Forum crowd. He jogged his way to the bench, accepting high fives from coaches and players, before pivoting toward the stands and waving his arms while letting loose a powerful yell of his own.

It was fitting because the Eagles, particularly Mitchell and Popovic, had played most of the second half with the same ferocity and power that those roars conveyed. After cling to a one-point halftime lead, BC used an inspired defensive effort to pull away from the Gophers, holding them to just 23.5 percent shooting in the second period en route to a 68-56 win—the first for the Eagles (5-1) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in three years.

Right from tip, BC was active defensively. Mitchell, a do-it-all forward from Shakopee, Minn. who was passed up on by his hometown Gophers (5-1), used quick hands to force a steal on the first possession of the game, and Wynston Tabbs nailed a 3-pointer on the other end to give the Eagles a quick lead.

From there, the teams started to trade baskets. Gabe Kalscheur—who entered the game shooting a scorching 58.1 percent from deep for the Gophers—provided an early spark for Minnesota as he buried a shot from behind the arc and hit a layup after Mitchell went up-and-under for a pretty reverse bank shot.

The Gophers were a two-man show for most of the first half. Kalscheur drew a foul on a 3-pointer and made all three of his shots from the charity stripe, and Jordan Murphy bullied his way to two baskets in the paint. All told, the duo combined for 22 of Minnesota’s 32 first half points.

On the other end, Ky Bowman briefly ignited the Conte Forum crowd as he drained a shot from distance, then soared through the lane for a thunderous one-handed dunk while drawing a foul for six quick points early. It could have been a launching point for the junior guard, who lit up the Fort Myers Tip-Off last weekend, but from that point forward, Bowman struggled. He finished the game with just 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting, though he did also pull down 11 rebounds for a double-double. It speaks to the guard’s prolific status—he was described by ESPN broadcaster Corey Alexander earlier in the week as “the nation’s most NBA-ready point guard”—that a double-double can seem like an off night.

In his stead, the Eagles relied on a team scoring effort. Vin Baker Jr. netted a 3-pointer to put BC up, 17-14. Two possessions later, Tabbs stole a Minnesota inbounds pass directly after a Bowman layup for an easy two points, and Jordan Chatman cut to the basket for a bucket down low to give BC a seven-point edge.

The Gophers didn’t cave, though, stringing together a 12-1 run to erase the deficit and take a four-point lead of their own. Eventually, with just under six minutes left in the half, Tabbs knifed into the lane, contorting and banking a tough shot off the glass while being fouled. The bucket ended a drought of almost four minutes without a field goal for the Eagles, but it failed to spark a sustained BC answer. Instead, both teams bogged down on the offensive end and combined for just 10 points in the final five minutes.

A Chatman jumper from the left wing answered a layup from the Gophers’ Michael Hurt and gave BC a slim lead heading into the locker room, but it didn’t take long for the Eagles to start widening the gap after the break.

It started, once again, on the defensive end. Two minutes into the period, Mitchell stood tall in the paint against Daniel Oturu, blocking the Minnesota freshman twice in a row on the same possession and grabbing a contested rebound. On the ensuing possession, Tabbs dumped the ball off to a wide open Popovic, who scored to put BC on top for good.

Three minutes later, Oturu somehow missed an uncontested dunk, slamming the ball high off the rim. Mitchell pulled down yet another tough rebound—one of 13 on the day for the sophomore—and sent the ball ahead to Bowman. The junior’s attempted fast break shot glanced off the back rim, but Popovic was there, converting a putback to extend the BC lead to 44-37.

That Popovic bucket was part of a 21-7 Eagles run that stretched 11 minutes of the second half and was punctuated by a deep Tabbs 3-pointer and a turnaround jumper by Popovic. The latest five-point swing put BC up, 56-42, forcing Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino to call a timeout with his team’s offense in shambles.

It looked as though the Gophers had no answers on the offensive end. They went more than eight minutes in the second half without a field goal, with their only points in that span coming off three free throws. Much of that was due to the Eagles’ defensive intensity—BC’s perimeter rotations were as good as they have been all season—but some of that was simply due to Minnesota being unable to convert.

“When you hold a team to that kind of shooting, it’s usually a combination of two things,” Eagles head coach Jim Christian noted after the game. “We played really good defense, didn’t give up easy shots. … And they had to miss some shots.”

Amir Coffey finally snapped the Minnesota drought from the field, scoring eight points in a row for the Gophers, as they momentarily reduced the BC lead to 13 at 63-50, but they simply couldn’t find any consistent scoring in the second half. Popovic put the finishing touches on an excellent performance with a dunk, and the Eagles were able to run out the clock.

The junior forward finished the game with 18 points on a perfect 9-for-9 shooting, and also pulled in six rebounds while playing solid interior defense all game long.

“I thought he was patient in the post, took his time,” Christian said of the forward, who has totaled over 32 points his last two games despite playing an average of 22 minutes. “I thought he played a solid game around the basket. When he’s patient, he’s a good player.”

After holding Loyola-Chicago to just 41.8 percent shooting in the championship game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off, there were some indications that BC had started to improve on the defensive end, and this effort against Minnesota won’t dampen those indications. The Gophers did miss some shots, but the perimeter defense looks adequate all of a sudden, as the Eagles held Minnesota to just 5-of-30 shooting from 3-point range. What’s more impressive, however, is that BC more than held its own down low, outrebounding the Gophers—who boast one of the best rebounders in the country in Murphy—44-37 and often pushed the ball up the court quickly after misses in order to try to find easier baskets.

“Our defense leads to our offense— if we get stops, we get to play in transition,” Mitchell, who had four assists as well, said after the game.

With Bowman and Tabbs—who turned in another excellent performance with 17 points and five assists—leading those fast breaks, and the Eagles finally roaring on the defensive end, BC is starting to look like a team that could once again hang with the ACC’s best.

Featured Image by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor

November 27, 2018