Second Half Struggles Waste BC’s Best First Half of the Year

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The crowd in Conte Forum, a disappointingly equal mixture of Boston College and Notre Dame supporters, rose to its feet in anticipation. After a pair of Ky Bowman free throws cut the Fighting Irish’s lead to just two points, 78-76, with less than one minute remaining on the clock, the visiting squad prepared to deliver a finishing blow to the upstart Eagles. After squandering a 10-point halftime lead and falling behind by as many as eight points, BC needed just one more stop in order to get a chance to tie or take the lead in the closing seconds.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” head coach Jim Christian said afterwards. “We would’ve gone for three and the win.”

As time dwindled down on the shot clock, Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia launched an errant 3-pointer from the wing. Clanging off the rim, the shot was deflected by Rex Pfleuger, the player Jordan Chatman should’ve more aggressively boxed out on the play. Senior forward V.J. Beachem corralled the loose ball for the Irish, dashing the Eagles’ hopes of a victory in Tuesday night’s edition of the Holy War, as BC dropped its 10th-straight conference game, 84-76.

“The blockout is the game play,” Christian said. “I don’t care what you’ve done the whole game, you’ve got to get that rebound.”

Surprisingly one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding outfits—despite regularly starting a severely undersized frontcourt, BC (9-18, 2-12 Atlantic Coast) entered Tuesday night’s contest ranked 10th in the nation in defensive rebounding rate per kenpom.com—the Eagles fell victim to one of the ACC’s smallest teams at the worst possible moment.

Though the rebounding snafu closed the curtains on the BC’s hopes of a Valentine’s Day surprise, it was merely the final act in a second-half collapse that allowed Notre Dame (20-7, 9-5) to avoid a humiliating loss despite not holding a lead in the game until the 12:42 mark of the second half. A first half in which the Eagles scored 49 points—the most the team has scored in an opening half this season—and assisted on 13-of-17 made field goals ultimately went to waste.

Three Up

1.) Bowman’s Patient Attack—Bowman had an extremely efficient game on Tuesday night, scoring 29 points on just 15 shot attempts, drilling 5-of-11 three-pointers and sinking all eight free throws he took. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance was that he demonstrated the ability to play fast and still be in complete control of the situation. Throughout the first few months of the season, flashes of brilliance were often interspersed with frustrating turnovers or rushes into a crowded paint without a plan. Against Notre Dame, Bowman managed to establish a stable equilibrium between his explosiveness and his ability to react to the other players around him.

In the clip above, Bowman comes around a screen from Mo Jeffers with the clear intention of getting into the paint. He recognizes, however, that his defender, Pflueger, has rapidly moved to slide underneath him and that Bonzie Colson has dropped into the paint to contain his drive. Instead of hoisting an ill-advised layup, Bowman smartly changes direction and uses a Jeffers screen in the opposite direction. Pflueger is caught off balance and gets hit by this second screen. With Colson reluctant to step out to Bowman at the 3-point arc, the freshman point guard is free to step back into an easy rhythm triple.

Bowman also makes use of change of direction and rescreening to generate an easy layup for Connar Tava in this clip. Again, as his defender, Matt Farrell, gets caught on the second screen, Colson is forced to step out to the perimeter, freeing up the lane for Tava to rumble through.

Additionally, Bowman showed an ability to play under control in transition, as seen in the clip above. Dribbling aggressively down the floor, he remains balanced enough to stop on a dime for a jumper at the free throw line, as he reads Farrell dropping deep into the paint to contain an anticipated drive. If Bowman can continue this more measured approach to the game, which leverages the threat of his attacking the basket to open opportunities elsewhere, the Eagles might be able to cut down on their extremely high turnover rate.

2.) Generating Corner Threes—3-pointers from the corner—juicy catch and shoot opportunities for proficient shooters—are usually generated from good ball movement, with a pass finding a stationary shooter in an open pocket of space. Against Notre Dame, Christian dialed up an interesting play to create open corner threes. The play twice resulted in made triples for Bowman.

On both occasions, after receiving a handoff from A.J. Turner, Bowman tosses the ball to Jerome Robinson, standing on the wing, and begins to jog off towards the corner. For most players, this action signals that they are merely looking to establish proper floor spacing. Their defender assumes he can take a moment’s respite, confident that his mark has temporarily taken himself out of the play. But just when it appears safe to relax, Christian has one of his big men—Jeffers in the first clip and Tava in the second clip—step up to the wing and set a back screen for Bowman. On both occasions, Bowman’s defender gets caught in the screen and the star freshman drills an open three off of the pass from Robinson. This type of screening, seen frequently in an NBA play called Hammer, proved very effective against the Irish, often resulting in late help defense or undesirable switching. Christian ran this action numerous times, even when Notre Dame switched to a zone defense in the second half.

Though Chatman misses the shot in the above clip, he does receive a very clean look at the basket thanks to a nice screen from Tava. Using a back screen to generate a corner three might actually be even more efficient against a 2-3 zone, with the isolated wing defender screened so quickly that none of his teammates can help on the open shooter.

3.) Turner’s Confidence—After a disastrous last five games, over which he averaged just 3.4 points and 1.8 assists per game, which resulted in a loss of confidence and temporary removal from the starting lineup, Turner rebounded with an excellent effort on Tuesday night. The former top recruit scored seven points and handed out six assists, against just one turnover. More importantly, he shot the ball with confidence and without much hesitation.

In the first clip, Turner calmly drills a triple, spotting up along the wing. The second clip is even more encouraging, as Turner attacks his defender off of the catch, taking two hard dribbles before pulling up for a jumper at the free throw line. He even manages to take the time to rotate slightly in the air, aligning himself to the hoop, before releasing the shot. When Turner makes plays off of the dribble, it’s a clear sign of an elevated confidence.

Turner also continued his underrated work as one of the premier inbounders in the ACC, hitting a cutting Tava in stride for an easy layup on this play. While it may seem like an odd skill to take note of, coaches at all levels prize execution of set plays after the ball goes out of bounds. A skilled inbounder can make all the difference in this quest for efficiency.

Three Down

1.) 3-Point Defense—Notre Dame came into Valentine’s Day shooting 39.5 percent from downtown, 15th in the country. For the game, the Eagles held the Irish to 11-of-31 on 3-pointers, a 35.5 percent clip and a bit below their season average. But though the final tally looks favorable, BC’s 3-point defense was rather pedestrian during a key stretch in the game. Over the course of a 16-2 Notre Dame run that transformed a 59-53 deficit into a 69-61 lead, BC allowed the Irish to sink 4-of-5 threes, with each one being wide open.

“In that stretch, we gave them about four or five rhythm threes,” Christian said. “If you let them drive the ball downhill, you’re in real big trouble.”

Defense on Farrell was especially poor during this stretch. The junior guard—a 43.9 percent long range shooter—finished the contest with 19 points and drilled 5-of-11 threes. In the first clip, Robinson sinks too far into the paint in transition. As Vasturia stops and flips the ball to Farrell at the 3-point line, the sophomore guard is too far away from his man to fight through the screen in time to contest the shot. In the second clip, Robinson simply loses sight of his man in transition. With eyes only for Vasturia and the ball, he fails to notice Farrell sprinting towards the wing for an open three.

On this three, which knotted the game up at 59-59, Bowman gets stuck on a screen as Farrell pushes the ball off of a missed BC shot. Nik Popovic, guarding the screener and sitting below the free throw line, puts Bowman in a tough position here. If Bowman can’t fight over the top of the screen, Popovic is too far away from the ball to make the ball handler nervous about launching an open three, an issue that Farrell takes full advantage of in this clip.

Finally, on this play, Turner falls for a Vasturia pump fake, allowing the senior guard to slip by his defender into the middle of the floor. This penetration triggers emergency help defense by Robinson, who leaves Beachem—a 38 percent long range shooter—alone at the arc. When the ball is kicked out to Beachem, Robinson can only muster a late closeout on the shot. This is the issue Christian knows his team must fix to remain competitive. Middle penetration triggers too many help rotations, guaranteeing shooters will be open for 3-pointers. Notre Dame made BC pay for these mistakes in the second half.

2.) Robinson’s Midrange Game—Robinson finished the game with only 11 points. In particular, he struggled from the midrange, an area in which he normally displays proficiency. Robinson converted just 3-of-11 looks from his sweet spot on the floor, including all six attempts in the second half, where he failed to score a basket.

A significant portion of the struggles stemmed from a failure to make easy shots that he normally hits. This look—an open shot from just inside the free throw line, against a 2-3 zone—is one he has consistently converted on all season.

 

Additionally, though he often makes them, Robinson does take a high number of difficult midrange shots. His combination of footwork and isolation skills afford him the ability to drain shots that other players would never even think of attempting. When these shots fail to find the bottom of the net, however, his shooting line can look ugly. The first clip is a stepback jumper from just inside the free throw line. After beating his man off of the dribble, Robinson is able to create space and launch the shot. Perhaps a bit overly ambitious, the shot clanks off the side of the rim. In the second clip, Robinson uses a nifty spin move to lose his defender. The footwork on the move is fine and he likely misses the shot as a result of a strong contest.

The badly missed running floater above illustrates Robinson’s late-game shot choice. Likely frustrated by his second half struggles and the deficit his team was facing, the star guard probably took a few ill-advised shots that he’ll regret when he looks back on this game. But for the most part, Robinson’s struggles on Tuesday night don’t seem to be the result of an overly anomalous shot selection. In future games, if Robinson simply converts on shots he normally makes, the issue of his midrange shooting woes should swiftly disappear.

3.) Second Half Swoon—Tuesday’s game continued a depressing trend for the Eagles. After allowing the Irish to score 45 points in the second half, the Eagles have now allowed three consecutive opponents to score at least that many in the closing stanza—Pittsburgh scored 52 second-half points last Wednesday and Georgia Tech scored 50 second-half points on Saturday. In each of those halves, the Eagles have been outscored by at least 11 points and have seen these poor showings erase a first half lead of at least nine points in each contest.

While a certain amount of this struggle can be attributed to the tiring of a short rotation of seven key players that expended a ton of energy in the first half, the bigger theme present appears to be a lack of effort and execution. Christian seems to be of the opinion that these issues are part of the process of his young team learning how to win games in a conference as talented as the ACC.

“When you’ve got opportunities to make plays, you’ve got to make them,” he said. “We hesitated at that time or lacked confidence at that time because we haven’t made [them].”

At a certain point, it becomes fair to wonder what it will take for this roster to learn the lessons of winning and carry them out through their play on the court, making the plays Christian has talked about. After two early conference victories against Syracuse and North Carolina State, 10 straight losses have blunted some of the momentum around the team, leaving their last few games as a chance to direct the team along the right course heading into next season. If Christian hopes to make the leap to competitiveness in 2018, the next three weeks will be crucial for establishing a firm foundation and team culture, an opportunity of which he and his players must take full advantage.

Featured Image by Keith Carroll / Heights Staff

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