Entering Saturday, Boston College men’s basketball had lost 13 consecutive contests to Notre Dame, with the Eagles’ last win in the rivalry dating back to 2004. Jim Christian’s squad also came into South Bend having lost four straight disappointing games, three of which were at home. In addition, the Eagles’ senior leader and 1,000-point scorer, Nik Popovic, was out against the Irish nursing a back injury.
So when BC found itself with an 11-point lead with five minutes left to play on Saturday, Eagles fans were certainly surprised, but they were surely also holding their breaths and saying, “Just hold on.” And holding on would prove to be a much tougher task than anticipated.
In the final five minutes, BC scored just three points, and after a string of Eagles turnovers and missed free throws, the Irish’s T.J. Gibbs drove to the hoop with five seconds to play and drew a foul. The senior from Scotch Plains, N.J., led all scorers with 22 points, had made all six of his attempts from the charity stripe on the afternoon, and was shooting 88 percent this season. But Gibbs missed the first shot, leaving the Eagles with a one-point lead and two seconds on the clock.
BC got the ball in, and Notre Dame immediately fouled Jay Heath. The freshman had been instrumental in taking the Eagles to this lead, racking up 16 points on the strength of four threes. But Heath missed the front end of the one-and-one, which left the Irish with hope, albeit with just 1.5 seconds on the clock. The desperate half-court heave by Dane Goodwin was off to the left, and the Eagles could finally exhale, escaping South Bend with a 73-72 victory.
Derryck Thornton led the attack for BC (5-5, 2-0 Atlantic Coast), slashing his way to a team-high 19 points on a very efficient 75 percent shooting clip. The Eagles worked the perimeter, converting on 11-of-23 3-pointers, and Jared Hamilton also provided a huge spark off the bench. Hamilton scored 13 points, mostly from the mid-range. With Popovic out, Steffon Mitchell, Luka Kraljevic, and C.J. Felder combined to do an excellent job controlling John Mooney, the Irish’s (6-3, 0-2) double-double machine who finished Third-Team All-ACC a season ago.
BC showed early that it was not afraid of the hostile environment of the Purcell Pavilion. The Eagles matched Notre Dame shot for shot, shooting their way to a 7-7 tie. From there the Eagles would build a lead through a 9-3 run that saw Jairus Hamilton work the inside and Heath knock down a triple. BC also took advantage of Irish turnovers early on, scoring 14 points off Notre Dame miscues in the first half.
Despite the struggles of Christian’s squad to put the ball in the basket during the losing streak, Thornton and Heath led the way to an offensive explosion during a three-minute stretch in the middle of the first half. After the under-12 minute media timeout, BC put up 15 points before the next intermission, and they picked apart the Irish’s zone by hitting perimeter shots. During the run, Heath, Thornton, and Jared Hamilton all made one from beyond the arc to extend BC’s lead, with the score 31-19.
Coming off of four consecutive losses, the Eagles played the first half with a newfound intensity on defense. The Eagles were playing very aggressively, and it was working. They got in passing lanes and made Notre Dame uncomfortable on offense. The Irish coughed up the rock 11 times in the first half, despite averaging just 9.5 per game entering Saturday’s contest.
BC, who has struggled to defend the 3-point arc this season, was closing out significantly better against the Irish as well. The Irish went just 3-for-11 from distance in the first frame, an improved percentage from the 35 percent BC was allowing coming in. All of these factors contributed to the Eagles taking a 38-28 edge into the locker room.
To open the second half, Felder, who started in place of Popovic, picked up where the Eagles left off in the first with a triple. Six different Eagles made at least one three in the contest, contributing to a balanced attack.
After Notre Dame cut the lead to 6, BC took over again, and it started on the defensive end. The team was much quicker on its rotations, and it was effectively limiting Mooney’s opportunities in the posts. But later in the second half, Notre Dame would storm back by exploiting BC’s lack of size with Popovic sidelined.
After just three free-throw attempts in the first half, the Irish got to the stripe 20 times in the second, particularly from Gibbs driving and Mooney getting better post position. BC, on the other hand, continued to rely on perimeter shooting, as it shot just four free throws all game.
Despite Notre Dame fighting hard to get back in the game, BC led wire to wire and always had a counterpunch. With Thornton and Hamilton getting big buckets to extend the lead to 11 with five minutes to go, the game seemed in hand. But the Irish continued to attack the basket. All of their points to cut the deficit to one came from the paint or the free-throw line.
On the other side, BC’s offense ran dry, as it turned the ball over twice on in-bounds passes when Notre Dame would have been forced to foul, and Thronton and Heath both missed potential game-clinching free throws. But thanks to Gibbs’ missed free throw, BC was able to hold on.
It was a great win for the morale of Christian and Co., breaking the losing streak and providing a testament to what BC is capable of if it can shoot well and run its offense effectively.
Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor