Boston College men’s basketball and Western Kentucky entered the NIT Tournament with two of the 50 most efficient offenses in the country, according to KenPom.com. Both teams looked the part for the first quarter of Tuesday night’s first-round matchup, shooting a combined 19-of-34. Then all of a sudden, the wheels came flying off the Eagles, who were playing their fourth game in the past seven days.
Quarter-by-quarter, BC’s field goal percentage continued to dip, as the Eagles recorded a mere 31.1-percent clip over the course of the final 30 minutes of play. For the third time in the past four games, head coach Jim Christian’s team failed to make more than a third of its 3-point attempts, dashing any hopes at a second-half comeback. But even if BC was on its game offensively, it still could have found itself on the wrong side of the box score.
The Eagles couldn’t buy a stop on the other end of the floor, allowing the Hilltoppers—a team that was a tip-in away from stealing the Conference U.S.A. Championship and punching its ticket to its first NCAA Tournament in five years—to shoot 55.4 percent from the floor. WKU, which came into the game averaging 5.5 triples, the 18th-fewest in the nation, bagged six 3-pointers. Yet the Hilltoppers really asserted their dominance inside the arc, hitting 67.3 percent of their 2-point shots. Justin Johnson led the charge with 19 points and 12 rebounds, shoving a 79-62 loss down the Eagles’ throats, ending BC’s storybook season.
Throughout the first quarter, the fifth-seeded Eagles (19-16, 7-11 Atlantic Coast), once again donning the Boston-themed alternate jerseys, resembled the team that upset NCAA Tournament-bound North Carolina State in the second round of the ACC Tournament six days earlier.
After missing its first shot, BC scored on its next five possessions, storming out to a four-point lead. Both Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson were clicking, and Steffon Mitchell, who was just 1-of-18 from downtown in his past 10 games, drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing. The Eagles’ guards pushed the ball in transition, capitalizing on fourth-seeded WKU’s (25-10, 14-4 Conference U.S.A.) five first-quarter turnovers. Luckily for head coach Rick Stansbury’s crew, it was having just as much luck, if not more, from the field.
The Hilltoppers rode a three-headed attack, consisting of Lamonte Bearden, Taveion Hollingsworth, and Johnson, to 19 points in the first frame. Bearden and Hollingsworth netted a couple of long balls, and Johnson began to carve out space in the paint. Still, BC held its multi-possession advantage for much of the period. Just as WKU started to close the gap, Bowman rattled off five of his team’s final seven points in the quarter, banking in an off-balanced 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the Eagles up, 24-19, heading into the second frame.
BC was on pace to score 96 points—then it totaled a mere 20 in the following two quarters. A minute into the second period, Nik Popovic picked up his second foul of the night, earning himself a spot on the bench for more than half the frame, freeing up space in the interior. Johnson had more than enough time to take over the game inside.
On one possession, the 6-foot-7 forward drove to the hoop, evading his defender in the process, and finished at the rack with a two-handed slam. Moments later, he drew a blocking foul, setting up Hollingsworth for a lead-changing 3-pointer. By the end of the half, Johnson’s statline—13 points and rebounds—nearly looked complete. The Hilltoppers’ quarter-opening 9-2 run got the E. A. Diddle Arena rocking and forced Christian to call a 30-second timeout. Out of the break, Robinson cashed in on a Mitchell offensive rebound with his lone 3-pointer of the game, but it hardly stopped the bleeding.
Soon enough, WKU retook the lead and ripped off another 9-2 run to close out the half with an eight-point advantage and all of the momentum on its side. The Hilltoppers, who attempted the 27th-most free throws in the country throughout the regular season, drew 12 personal fouls in the quarter, reserving 10 shots at the charity stripe. On the other end of the floor, they were impenetrable, not only holding the Eagles to a putrid nine points, but also keeping them off the free throw line for the second-straight quarter.
Two minutes into the third frame, Bowman sunk BC’s first two free throws of the game, but it didn’t make a difference. It was only a matter of time before WKU strung together six-straight points—a stretch that was fueled by the Eagles’ poor ball security. The Hilltoppers converted back-to-back BC turnovers into a pair of highlight-reel dunks, courtesy of Johnson and Darius Thompson, firmly establishing a double-digit lead. As a whole, WKU made a habit of running up and down the floor, scoring 13 more fastbreak points than the Eagles. Thompson, who recorded a team-high 11 points in the second half, was just getting started. The senior guard scored four more points in a row, before handing the keys to Johnson and Hollingsworth for the final minutes of the period.
BC erased five double-digit deficits for come-from-behind victories this season. Tuesday just wasn’t one of those nights. The Eagles finally regained somewhat of a rhythm offensively in the final quarter—at least for the first half of the frame—draining three of their first five shots from the floor. The problem was, they were just as helpless when it came to protecting the rim. A couple of Jake Ohmer layups increased the WKU lead to 17, its largest of the game.
Attempting to swing momentum, Bowman broke free in transition, cuffed the ball, and threw down an emphatic one-handed dunk, igniting a 9-2 Eagles run that slingshotted BC into striking distance. But BC didn’t make another field goal after that, failing to get a single shot to fall in the final four minutes and 18 seconds of regulation. The Hilltoppers hit a handful of free throws down the stretch to restore their substantial lead, securing a spot in the second round of the NIT.
BC, on the other hand, said goodbye to the 2017-18 campaign—a season in which the Eagles logged three more wins than the past two seasons combined, knocked off two top-25 teams, including a top-ranked Duke squad, snapped a 23-game ACC losing streak, won back-to-back ACC Tournament games for the first time since 2005-06, and reached the postseason for the first time in seven years. Even if Jerome Robinson leaves for the upcoming NBA Draft, Jim Christian will be light years ahead of where he was last offseason. BC may not have made it to the Big Dance or even the second round of the NIT, but it earned respect—something it hasn’t garnered in more than half a decade.
Featured Image by Sanket Bhagat / Heights Staff