Late run propels BC to first Sweet Sixteen since ’94

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah—Critics of Boston College’s recent postseason shortcomings have been served their notice.

This year’s Eagles have cleared the proverbial hump, exorcising the demons of recent second-round exits.

BC took another step toward silencing these critics, using a dominant second-half stretch to put away No. 12 seed Montana, 69-56, in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

“You’ve got to have killer instinct,” said BC junior forward Jared Dudley after the game. “For the first time all year, we did that.”

With the win, the Eagles, seeded No. 4 in their region, will advance to the regional semifinals in Minneapolis, Minn.

They will face No. 1 seed – and former Big East rival – Villanova at 7:10 p.m. on Friday night.

Senior forward Craig Smith led BC with 22 points and 16 rebounds, and Dudley was close behind with 20.

Both members of the duo topped the 20-point plateau in the Eagles’ first two NCAA Tournament games.

It was the fourth time in BC’s last seven outings that both players went for at least 20.

The win improved the Eagles to 28-7 on the season, setting a school record for most wins in a season.

BC surpassed its 2001 predecessors, who went 27-5, winning the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, but falling in its bid for win No. 28 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

For the 2006 edition of the Eagles, though, the 28th win did not come easily for the first 25 minutes of the contest.

BC had a difficult time finding the bottom of the net in the onset, making only 13 of its 38 field-goal attempts in the first half.

Such memories were erased soon after, as the Eagles shot a blistering 56 percent from the floor after halftime.

Smith, battling constant double teams on the inside, managed to log 16 first-half points, but did so on 8-of-18 shooting. He shot a much more efficient 3-of-5 from the floor in the second half.

Dudley also struggled from the floor in the early going, shooting just 2-of-9, but his 5-of-7 second half helped BC break it open.

The first-half shooting woes were canceled out by work on the glass.

BC’s prowess on the offensive glass led to the Eagles collecting 12 offensive rebounds and scoring 12 second-chance points in the opening 20 minutes.

At the same time, BC conceded several easy shots to Montana, allowing them to hang with the favored Eagles throughout the first half.

“I thought we were a little relaxed defensively,” said BC head coach Al Skinner. “We weren’t reacting to their offense the way we should have, but in the second half we had a better feel for what their offense was.”

Playing behind a partisan crowd in its favor, the underdog Grizzlies gave their rambunctous fans plenty of reason to cheer from the start.

Montana controlled the lead throughout much of a closely-played half that saw six ties, six lead changes, and a lead that never grew larger than five for either club.

BC took the lead back for good with 1:24 to play on an inside shot by Smith, who scored the last eight points of the half for the Eagles, propelling his team to a slim 32-30 lead into the locker room.

Dudley helped push BC out quickly in the second half, knocking down a three-pointer to open the scoring, and added a tough two on the inside to give BC a nine-point lead.

The Eagles broke the game open near the midway point of the second half, on a pair of three-pointers on successive possessions by freshman guard Tyrese Rice (14 points).

Two days after a 1-for-6 performance from Rice that included an airball from beyond the arc and the freshman not sinking a triple until the second overtime, Rice had the hot hand.

A shooter of Rice’s caliber often needs to have a poor short-term memory, and he certainly forgot about his struggles against Pacific.

Rice made three of his four attempts from three-point land, the second of which put the Eagles ahead by a 54-40 margin, at which point the rambunctious Montana faithful appeared to have had the wind taken out of their sails.

Montana’s fans tried to stay behind the Grizzlies, coming back to life after a BC turnover led to a three-pointer by sophomore guard Matt Martin (11 points), but it was the final bright spot that ignited the Grizzlies’ fans.

A Smith bucket was followed by sophomore center Sean Williams’ block – one of his five on the night – of Montana star forward Andrew Strait, who had just one of his 11 points after halftime.

On the ensuing possession, Rice fired another three from the left wing. Not even a hand in his face could stop the freshman from finding the net and putting his team ahead 62-45.

Soon after, a traditional three-point play by Dudley gave him his 20th point of the night, and BC a 21-point lead, its largest of the night, with just under five minutes to go.

The Eagles did not score in the final 3:50, but the only significant change in that time was the eventual margin of victory.

A trip to Minneapolis for next weekend had already been secured.