When Boston College men’s basketball forward Nik Popovic left the floor with just over four minutes to play, the crowd stood up and applauded, as the junior—who has battled shoulder and groin injuries early on this season—had made his first eight shots from the field for the Eagles. Monday was a night to remember for Popovic and the rest of Jim Christian’s team as it used a second-half surge to beat Minnesota, 68-56, for its third win in a row.
The Eagles (5-1) hadn’t won a game in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge in their last three tries, and Minnesota (5-1) came in sporting an undefeated record and a KenPom ranking of 45, the highest-ranked team BC would play thus far. But the Eagles, fresh off a victory in the inaugural Fort Myers Tip-Off Tournament, were riding high into this game. BC was clicking on all cylinders and carried the momentum back from Florida into a game that drew an impressive crowd, especially considering the late start time. The Eagles passed the home test against Minnesota, and there were more aspects of the game to be pleased about than not.
The Hustle Factor
It is often said that intangibles—factors like getting to loose balls, fighting for tough rebounds, and getting in lanes to intercept lazy passes—affect basketball games. These intangibles require an intense amount of focus, and that was something that BC possessed on Monday night. Steffon Mitchell, playing against his home state’s school, was extraordinary in this hustle category on Monday. On a number of occasions, Mitchell ripped rebounds out of Gophers’ hands, finishing the game with 13 boards against a physical Minnesota frontcourt that entered as one of the best rebounding groups in the country. The sophomore was also diving all over the floor for loose balls and got to the free throw line 11 times, the most of any player.
This grit factor carried over to the rest of the team as well. The Eagles worked hard to record five blocked shots, the most since their first game against Milwaukee. Mitchell and Jairus Hamilton each notched two, with both of Mitchell’s coming on the same possession. BC stayed alert in passing lanes as well, especially from the guard position. Wynston Tabbs tallied three steals, while Ky Bowman added two to lead the defensive charge.
It was a tale of two halves for this Eagles team. Especially in the waning minutes of the first frame, BC looked lethargic, surrendering a seven-point lead as part of a 12-1 Gophers run. It got careless with the ball, and Minnesota capitalized. All things considered, the Eagles were lucky to enter the break up by a point.
In the second half, however, it was all Eagles. BC ramped up its defense, allowing just three made field goals in the first 15 minutes of play. It was contesting every shot, giving up very few offensive rebounds, and turning Minnesota empty possessions into points of its own on the other end. As the Eagles enjoyed an 11-2 run of their own, this time, they did not relinquish the lead, coming up with an answer for every Gopher score. It was a welcome sight for a team that has been very susceptible to scoring runs from opponents this season.
Popovic and Tabbs Continue to Impress
With Bowman struggling to find his shot—he was 3-of-13 from the field—BC turned to a grizzled veteran alongside an impressive rookie to shoulder the offensive burden. Despite his center still recovering from a groin injury that held him out in the Fort Myers Tip-Off semi-final against Wyoming, Christian turned to Popovic for nearly 20 minutes in this game. The Bosnian junior did not disappoint off the bench, totaling 18 points and finishing an immaculate 9-of-9 from the field, the last of which was an emphatic dunk in the closing minutes of the game. Popovic has been a consistent contributor for this Eagles team, having notched double-digit points in four of the five games he’s played. His post moves, especially the hook shot, look much improved from last season, and his ability to better control his dribble is helping him cut down on turnovers.
From the guard spot, Tabbs stole the spotlight with a career-high 17 points. After becoming the first Eagle in over 30 years to open his career with three 15-point games, Tabbs continued to shine against Minnesota. He cut into the lane with ease, finished acrobatic layups, and knocked down 2-of-5 from 3-point range. The freshman also led the Eagles with five assists, showing his strong court vision. His prowess on the defensive end was evident as well, punctuated by a highlight-reel block from behind on 6-foot-7 forward Jordan Murphy. The Maryland native continues to impress in all facets of the game, and Christian has relied on him for 30-plus minutes in all but one game this season.
The entirety of BC’s defensive unit was dominant on Monday, allowing just 56 points to a Gophers team that came in averaging almost 80. What stood out in particular was how well the Eagles contested shots and closed out on shooters, something that has been troublesome for them in years prior. BC mixed its man-to-man with its matchup zone defenses against Minnesota, and it seemed to catch the Gophers off guard. A number of shots from the paint saw at least two Eagles’ defenders hounding the shooter. They made Minnesota work for all of their points in the painted area, which made life particularly difficult for big men Murphy and Daniel Oturu beneath the basket—the duo ultimately combined for just 8-of-20 shooting.
The perimeter defense was much improved as well, a promising sign for a group that struggled mightily in that area last season. The Gophers were just 5-of-30 from 3-point range, with the resulting 17-percent clip easily being the Eagles’ best defensive showing of the season—they’d entered allowing opponents to hit 35 percent of their deep shots. It was a combination of the Gophers missing open looks and better closing out from BC defenders. The Eagles had a hand in the face of most of these attempts, playing a major role in this low percentage. The stellar defensive performance is certainly something BC hopes to build on.
Featured Image by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor