It was just like old times.
Boston College men’s basketball was back in Madison Square Garden—the site of its last conference tournament championship. A title that is now 16 years old.
For two and a half decades, BC made the annual trip to New York for the Big East Tournament. Competing among the likes of Syracuse, Connecticut, Villanova, and Georgetown, the Eagles took part in what is now the longest-running conference tournament at any one venue in all of college basketball. Win or lose, the atmosphere was unrivaled.
When BC left for the ACC in 2005, the program lost that aura.
But for one night, the Eagles got it back. Prior to the start of league play, head coach Jim Christian and Co. traveled to the Garden to play Auburn in the Under Armour Reunion game on Dec. 12, 2016. Coming into the contest, BC was riding a two-game skid and sat at a mere 4-5. Having already lost to Nicholls State and Hartford, the Eagles’ chances of defeating a Power Five opponent, let alone a winning one, were slim.
Yet, right from the get-go, BC looked like a changed team. And one player in particular looked especially different. Ky Bowman had dyed his hair a flaming-hot red. But that wasn’t all. Coincidence or not, for the first time all season, Bowman caught fire. The freshman guard—who was averaging just 6.6 points per game at the time—nearly doubled that mark by intermission. In fact, it was Bowman who teamed up with Jerome Robinson and A.J. Turner to score 10 of the game’s first 14 points.
“There was just a confidence about [Bowman] that was kind of spreading to the whole team in that particular game,” Christian said thinking back on that day. “It was his moment. You knew, ‘Okay, this is going to be the guy.’ He’s got something here.”
Although Bowman’s numbers slipped in the second half of that game, his impact was undeniable. After all, he was the one that set up Nik Popovic’s game-winning tip-in at the buzzer. With just a few seconds remaining in the game, Bowman sprinted into the lane and put up a contested layup. It missed by a matter of inches, but Popovic was there to put it back.
What’s telling is not that Bowman missed the shot, rather, it’s that he was the one taking it. One game removed from logging three points in nine minutes of play, Bowman had emerged as a go-to scoring threat. In essence, he had added another dimension to Christian’s offense.
And for the first time in over a year, a sense of optimism surrounded BC basketball.
“It’s a new beginning for us, and that’s what we were telling everybody in the huddle,” Robinson said in a Fox Sports postgame interview. “It’s going to be a whole different team.”
While it was a game reminiscent of the past, the future of the program was on full display.
As soon as Bowman arrived on campus this summer, the coaching staff knew it had something special. From the moment he took the court, his athleticism, speed, and scoring ability were evident. But when the regular season began, Bowman failed to produce. Suddenly, he wasn’t making the shots that he was draining in practice. The most routine of passes resulted in turnovers.
Not to mention that he struggled on the fastbreak. His speed—normally a strength—became his greatest weakness. Time and time again, Bowman zoomed past defenders while bringing the ball up the floor. But once he passed halfcourt, he was almost going too fast. His court vision was clouded and his ball control was erratic.
Throughout the first quarter of the season, Bowman looked raw. He looked like what he was: a kid who was playing his second full year of basketball.
Ready or not, Bowman, was faced with the task of learning a new system. Troubles at home made it even harder.
Since arriving at BC, Bowman has lost a handful of loved ones. To say the least, the transition to college was not easy. Hundreds of miles away from his hometown, Havelock, N.C., Bowman felt helpless.
Assistant coach Scott Spinelli calls Bowman a “pleaser,” someone who always tries to do the right thing. So when it came to his family, Bowman took on the responsibility of handling what was going on back home.
But as soon as things were squared away, a huge weight was lifted off of his shoulders.
That’s when he broke out.
Bowman scored a career-high 15 points against Auburn, playing a major part in the Eagles’ first signature victory of the year. Less than a week later, he dropped 33 points and five assists in a loss to Fairfield. Bowman practically orchestrated BC’s second-half comeback by himself. He shot 9-of-12 from the field and tallied 21 points. Above all else, Bowman took no plays off—literally. He was the only Eagle to play the full second half.
After the game, Christian walked with his point guard back to the bus. Bowman turned to him and criticized his own performance—another career high. He took a jab at his defensive play, and declared that it must improve. At that moment, Christian knew what he had in Bowman.
“You know certain guys have it,” Christian said. “They’re playing for more than just this moment. They’re playing to get the most out of their ability. And that’s what he does.”
A few days later, fellow classmate and point guard Ty Graves was granted his release from the program. From then on out, it was all up to Bowman.
BC entered conference play, having not won an ACC game since March 7, 2015. But on New Year’s Day, the infamy came to an end. Its victim? None other than the then-reigning Midwest Regional Champion Syracuse Orange.
From tipoff, Bowman was on. With each shot, his light only got greener.
“I mean, after the second one, I feel like I can just let it go,” Bowman said.
Bowman sunk 7-of-8 shots from beyond the arc and eclipsed the 30-point mark for the second time in three games. Together, he and Robinson combined for a total of 52 points. And as a team, the Eagles made a Conte Forum-best 16 triples.
Even though he wasn’t on the team for the 2015-16 season, Bowman recognized how much the victory meant to those who were.
“Just being able to show that we can do it,” Bowman said. “Not that we’re one of the teams at the bottom, but that we’re actually one of the teams that everybody has to watch out for.”
In addition to showing that BC was a legitimate threat in conference play, Bowman had something else to prove: that all of the coaches who passed up on him were missing out. Especially when the Eagles started playing teams right in Bowman’s backyard.
Before the game against North Carolina State, talks of a Bowman-Dennis Smith, Jr. matchup resurfaced. During their high school days, everyone in the state wanted to see the two guards duke it out on the court. So when the Wolfpack traveled to Chestnut Hill, it was not surprising to see several spectators make the trek.
Bowman, an unranked football star-turned-basketball player, was up against someone he aspired to be. Smith, Jr. was someone that wasn’t overlooked—a five-star recruit and a potential NBA Lottery pick.
Based on their performances, you would have thought it was the other way around. Bowman scored 19 points, converting on more field goal and 3-point attempts than Smith, Jr.
“The one thing about Ky Bowman: the bigger the stage, the bigger he performs,” Spinelli said.
The stage was no bigger than when then-No. 9 North Carolina came to town. Bowman was originally committed to play football at UNC, prior to switching to the sport of basketball. And when the time came for Bowman to enter the basketball recruiting process, Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams wasn’t interested.
Bowman’s mother, Lauretha Prichard, distinctly remembers what her husband said to Bowman before the game.
“His stepfather told him, ‘All right, they didn’t pick you. So this is a personal thing. You take it to ’em,’” Prichard said.
He did just that. Bowman poured on another 33-point performance. In large part because of his outside shooting, the Eagles were still in the game well into the second half. BC may have lost, but Bowman had made his mark.
Prior to the game, BC athletics handed out Bowman-like headdresses to Eagles fans. Unlike many giveaways, this one was a hit. Everywhere you looked, there was red hair. The excitement was indescribable.
Even Williams took note.
“For a while, it was the Ky Bowman show,” he said in the postgame press conference.
Despite consistently playing teams close, the Eagles failed to win another ACC game. Bowman had never experienced such a dismal stretch. Still, he remained positive, and remembered Prichard’s words.
“You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, but as long as you go out there and take it, and do what you have to do, you’ve won,” Prichard said. “In your mindset, you’ve won.”
As time went on, Bowman, The Heights’ Breakout Male Athlete of the Year, improved in nearly every statistical category. He finished out the regular season with 12-straight double-digit performances. And he would have added to that streak if it wasn’t for an awkward fall in the first round of the ACC Tournament.
Bowman also made it a priority to involve all of his teammates on the floor. If it meant that BC would have a better chance of winning, he’d willingly turn down a 30-point game.
After all was said and done, he earned All-ACC Freshman honors and ranked as the fourth-leading scorer among his classmates in the conference. Two of the three above him—Jayson Tatum and Smith, Jr.—have already declared for this year’s NBA Draft. Eventually, Bowman sees himself joining them.
So do others around him. Spinelli sees a lot of similarities between Bowman and NBA players who he recruited before coming to BC—guys like Khris Middleton, Jake Layman, and Alex Len, guys who were originally doubted.
But right now, Bowman is focused on carrying BC back to its winning ways—like it was when it played in the Big East.
With the combination of Bowman and Robinson—the fifth-highest scoring backcourt in conference play among the Power Five—Christian and Spinelli’s path back to that point should be a bit easier. Both of the underclassmen guards serve as the staple of BC’s recruiting pitch.
“It’s no longer, ‘Hey we have these guys that can be good,’” Christian said. “No, we have these guys who are really good.”
Bowman may have made a statement this season, but he still has a chip on his shoulder. According to Spinelli, Bowman thinks he should have been selected as the ACC Freshman of the Year. And don’t think he’s forgotten about all of those coaches who ghosted him.
Bowman will always have a fire in him. Maybe not always in his hair, but in his heart.
Featured Image by Keith Carroll / Heights Staff