Sports, Top Story, Basketball, Men's Basketball

Defensive Effort, Balanced Scoring Help Eagles Open Season with Win Over Wake Forest

On one possession early in Boston College men’s basketball’s Wednesday night season opener, Jay Heath leapt in the air, and got some serious hang time. Funnily enough, he wasn’t even shooting. 

Just seconds before, Steffon Mitchell had ripped the ball away from Wake Forest’s Isaiah Mucius, before turning and finding a streaking Jairus Hamilton for a wide-open fastbreak dunk. In premature celebration of the slam, Heath jumped straight up into the air. The dunk gave the Eagles just a 4-2 lead, by no means a commanding one, but it was a sign of things to come. 

For most of the Eagles’ season opener against the Demon Deacons, they played with the high energy and intensity that Heath displayed on his celebration on both ends of the floor, and it paid off. BC never trailed past the 12:54 minute mark of the first half, and opened the season with a win, besting Wake Forest, 77-70. 

“Everybody came with the right mindset defensively [and] to battle on the glass for the most part,” head coach Jim Christian said after the game. 

Wednesday marked the first time in program history that the Eagles (1-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) opened their season against an ACC opponent. Understandably, the teams got off to a sluggish start, shooting a combined 4-of-14 through the first four minutes. Thanks to a 3-pointer and a jumper from Mucius, Wake Forest (0-1, 0-1) held an early 5-4 lead, but that didn’t last long. 

After the first media timeout, BC point guard Derryck Thornton—who scored 23 points in his first game as an Eagle—was left wide open on the left wing and nailed a triple, giving BC the lead. 

Julian Rishwain, one of the Eagles’ four freshmen, went to work, banking a reverse layup off the glass and hitting a pair of free throws. Nik Popovic elevated for a short jumper that found nothing but net, and great ball movement in transition gave Jared Hamilton a wide-open shot from behind the arc that he buried. All of a sudden, BC was up, 16-9. 

The lead kept getting bigger, in large part due to a swarming Eagles’ defense that played with energy all night long. BC forced 10 first-half turnovers and looked to push the ball at every chance it got. CJ Felder was particularly impressive with his activity, swatting a Ody Oguama layup from point-blank range, then hitting a triple from the top of the key to extend the BC advantage to 25-12. Eventually Mucius sunk a turnaround jumper to stop an 18-3 Eagles run, but the Demon Deacons were trailing, 27-16. 

Mucius’ make was the start of five consecutive made field goals for the Demon Deacons. The stretch, which narrowed the BC lead to eight, took place over 2:03 of game time. But just when it looked like Wake Forest was about to tighten the gap even further, the Eagles responded emphatically. 

Heath, who finished with an efficient 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting in his first collegiate game, swished a 3-pointer. On the Demon Deacons’ next possession, Steffon Mitchell swatted an Olivier Sarr layup and started a fast break before firing a no-look halfcourt pass to a streaking Heath for two easy points and a 36-23 BC lead. The teams traded baskets from there, with a Mucius triple cutting the Eagles edge to 42-27 at the break. 

After halftime, it looked like BC would be able to keep its high level of play up. Back-to-back layups from Heath and a steal and basket from Thornton gave the Eagles their largest lead of the night, 48-29—and it looked like BC might be able turn its season opener into a blowout. But as the second half wore on, the Eagles’ energy level started to dip, and slowly but surely the Demon Deacons started to climb back into the contest. 

Brandon Childress, Wake Forest’s leading scorer from a season ago, knocked down a pair of shots from behind the arc, kicking off a 16-7 scoring spurt that narrowed the Eagles’ lead to 10.

BC was working late in the shot clock to get its shot attempts, as Popovic rolled a shot off the glass and Thornton buried his second 3-pointer of the night to stop the bleeding. The Demon Deacons eventually were able to cut the Eagles’ lead to single digits, but never got closer than seven points. Heath, Thornton, and Popovic, who combined for 60 of the Eagles’ 77 points on the night, all found clutch baskets, and eventually Wake Forest had to resort to fouling. 

Nevertheless, BC sunk 7-of-9 attempts from the charity stripe in the last 65 seconds of the game, ensuring there was no late drama. 

The win was an impressive one for the Eagles, who played 10 players and led for virtually the entire contest. The only concern was that both Hamilton and his brother, Jared Hamilton, exited the contest with injuries. Christian did not have an update on their status after the game. In their absence, the freshmen stepped up—notably, Heath showed some signs that he can emerge as a consistent scorer and ball handler for BC, with Wynston Tabbs out for the season. 

“I was proud of all of them,” Christian said of the freshmen. “They played with great effort. They really bought in to what we were doing, and they played with great fire. They played with a lot of enthusiasm, and that’s what we need.” 

In addition, the Eagles were solid on the defensive end, especially in the first half, and forced 17 Demon Deacon turnovers. That’s the kind of effort the Eagles will need night in and night out if they are to improve on their 14-17 record from a season ago. But for now, BC is 1-0 with a quality win over an ACC opponent. 

“I think the guys fully got it: that this was going to be an important game for the most part to determine who we are,” Christian added. “We have certain things, certain standards that we’re trying to hold each other accountable to.”

If this is who BC is for the rest of the year, then there’s certainly reason to believe the Eagles are ready to take a step forward under Christian.

Featured Image by Kait Devir / Heights Staff

November 7, 2019

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