Ty Graves got some separation around the 3-point line. With no Stony Brook defenders under the basket, Jerome Robinson took a chance and cut for the basket. Graves eyed him, and lofted up a pass. Before any Seawolves could turn around, Robinson had already slammed it down to extend Boston College men’s basketball’s lead to 23 points in the first half. Graves, now donning a white headband, turned to the BC bench at the far side of the court and screamed, pounding his chest. For the first time in a long time, the Eagles were having fun.
And then the Seawolves stormed back, just as they did all throughout last season’s NCAA Tournament run. The Eagles began to turn the ball over, allowing Stony Brook new life at the end of each half. A 23-point lead closed to 16 by the half. Down the stretch, that evaporated to single digits.
But, unlike previous years’ teams, the Eagles had enough fight to hold their lead. Led by Robinson’s career-high 22 points and 13 from Nik Popovic, the Eagles locked down another victory, 82-75.
The Eagles played sloppily in the first few minutes, before Robinson and A.J. Turner found some open space to hit wide-open 3-pointers. Robinson took advantage of Stony Brook’s poor play in the paint by driving hard to the basket. Instead of focusing on his jumper—which was working from mid-range but not from beyond the arc—Robinson commanded play under the basket. In total, the Eagles outscored Stony Brook 24-6 in the paint in the first half. That strategy was the exact game plan head coach Jim Christian wanted to see from his team.
“Overall, I think we’ve taken pretty good shots, and guys played pretty unselfishly,” Christian said.
Matching his strong performance offensively, Robinson also did well busting back aggressively on defense. One of those efforts led to a LeBron James-esque chase-down block, after which Robinson stood up with an expressionless swagger, before high-fiving some fans sitting in the front two rows. The Eagles also didn’t show any fear in applying a full-court press throughout the game to try and force mistakes by Stony Brook.
Popovic was a huge key to BC’s strong play in both halves. As Robinson and Turner danced around the edge, taunting the Seawolves into expecting a 3-pointer, Popovic opened up space inside to dominate with layups. Even when he overshot the basket, he could land a behind-the-back layup. Popovic even knocked down a 3-pointer, and finished the day with 13 points in 13 minutes on an efficient 6-of-7 shooting.
Like Ky Bowman, who has found early success with explosiveness off the bench, Popovic cannot start nor play long stretches. Because of Mo Jeffers’s and Connar Tava’s success, he doesn’t have to play more than he needs to, and Christian can keep him fresh. Those short bursts, plus a strong week of practice, allowed Popovic to play as well as he had all season long.
“He practiced so much better than he played the first two games,” Christian said of his young center. “I’m not one iota surprised at how well he played, because that’s the Niko we’ve seen, except for in the first couple of games.”
BC’s strong lead at the end of the half let Christian be comfortable with putting in his backups. One of those, Mike Sagay, added some significant electricity to Conte Forum when he came in. He knocked down his first 3-pointer, running back on defense before it even landed. He immediately put each of his hands into three fingers on both sides of his head, a la Carmelo Anthony, and shouted to the crowd.
Yet turnovers toward the ends of both halves allowed Stony Brook to climb back. The Eagles had 15 turnovers in the game, many of them unforced. Christian also believed that, in the second half, his team grew soft on defense. These factors are things that Christian wants to heavily drill in practice to prevent mistakes with a quick turnaround to Tuesday’s game against Towson.
“In the first half, we guarded the ball tremendously well,” Christian said. “And in the second half, we just stopped guarding the ball. So we’ve got to get better.”
Yet the Eagles pulled away with strong free-throw shooting down the stretch. The Eagles were 23-of-36 from the charity stripe, the most conversions and attempts BC has had under Christian. And, after Jordan Chatman hit four to ice the game at the end, that fact wasn’t lost on a head coach who saw more positives than negatives.
“The goal is to get better each game,” Christian said. “And we got better.”
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Staff