A few minutes into the second half of Boston College men’s basketball’s game against Pennsylvania State University, two friends in the stands stood up and turned around, posing for a picture with the court in the background. They might have had their backs turned to the action for a minute, if that. After taking the picture, one of the friends turned and refocused his attention on the court. A look of sheer bewilderment crossed his face, his mouth agape. Down on the sidelines, pacing in front of the BC(3-4) bench, the same expression crossed Jim Christian’s face.
The unwitting fan had missed a show. A 65-second show to be exact. Down 38-33 three minutes into the second half, Penn State (4-2) sophomore Shep Garner morphed into an incendiary device, staggering the Eagles defense with three triples in just over a minute. BC’s 67-58 loss to the Nittany Lions turned in the blink of an eye, with Garner’s outburst killing the Eagles’ momentum and sending Christian’s team to its fourth straight loss in the last week.
“They were transition threes,” Christian said. “We didn’t even contest two of them. It was just bad defense.”
That onslaught was part of a career night for Garner, who finished with 30 points and eight 3-pointers, tying the Conte Forum record. From the opening tip, Garner was in rhythm, knocking down his first five attempts from downtown. Between not picking him up in transition, not closing down his airspace on pick and rolls and making late closeouts, BC made life easy for Garner.
“We gave him that luxury of getting comfortable,” center Dennis Clifford said after the game.
Garner’s outburst silenced the momentum BC had built to start the first half. The guard scored Penn State’s first 12 points, but BC answered with a 15-3 run, helping the Eagles take a 38-31 lead. Key to this run was the play of Clifford, who finished the night with a season-high 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Scoring twice in the post and hitting two jumpers, Clifford showed off an improved arsenal and the ability to make quick, decisive moves with the ball. He scored the final eight points of the run, including a pick and roll dunk, on which he was fouled. Clifford attributed his ability to show more explosion to his offseason workouts.
“I spent a lot of time this offseason just working on my lower body,” he said.
Buoyed by Garner’s sublime shooting, Penn State answered the Eagles with a 15-2 run of their own to take a 46-40 lead. After BC inched to within 48-47 on a Jerome Robinson floater with just under 10 minutes remaining, Penn State used a quick 0 run to pull away for good. In addition to the three point shooting, BC fell behind because of their inability to solve Penn State’s 2-3 zone.
For most of the first half, Penn State head coach Pat Chambers stuck with man-to-man defense, sprinkling in occasional zone possessions. A few minutes into the second half, Chambers went almost exclusively zone, to an overall excellent result. BC shot just 1-of-9 from beyond the 3-point line in the second half, with the offense stagnating due to its inability to get into the paint. Its normal clean three point looks from pick and roll action vanished, with the option removed by virtue of the zone defense. The adjustment made by Chambers forced the young Eagles into a corner, testing their patience and ability to adapt.
The finer details of the zone struggles infuriated Christian. He felt that his team handled the zone very well early in the game, but struggled late due to laziness.
“We were carving the zone up, playing very nicely in the beginning, but we just got lazy with the ball,” Christian said.
To a degree, he was correct. When Chambers switched full-time to the zone, BC’s Garland Owens hit a jumper on the first possession by flashing into the unoccupied middle of the zone and getting the ball after a few quick passes. Later, BC devolved into more isolation play, with Eli Carter and Robinson forced to create their own shots. Carter struggled mightily in the second half, missing all five of his shots, finishing with just seven points, easily a season low. Many of the looks were forced and out of rhythm.
Regardless of players hitting shots, Christian was mostly concerned with the effort his team displayed.
“Until we figure out that you got to compete hard for 40 minutes, it’s going to be difficult,” he said.
This maxim carries over to both team and individuals. In addition to the late game stretch of poor offensive execution, Penn State handily won the battle of the boards, 40-27, despite having averaged three fewer boards per game than their opponents over the previous five games. On the individual side, AJ Turner came out with more aggression than he had displayed in previous games, scoring nine of BC’s first 13 points and attempting six first half free throws. In the second half, Turner appeared to lose that aggressiveness and missed all four of his shots, a performance that was emblematic of this team-wide inconsistency.
Christian knows that there’s no excuse for lacking consistent effort. He refused to blame the performance on youth.
“That’s not age,” Christian said after the game. “That’s not competing.”
If his young Eagles want to break from their slump, they’re going to have to learn to quash those momentum-killing runs before they even happen.
After the game, Christian put it bluntly: “We have to understand how to go for the kill in that situation.”
Featured Image by Daniella Fasciano / Heights Editor