Up by a point with eight seconds left, the game was hanging in the balance for Boston College men’s basketball on Wednesday night against Eastern Washington. Derryck Thornton was shooting a one-and-one at the line, where he was five-for-six on the evening. But when the graduate transfer missed the front end, Eagles fans inhaled with anxiety. It was fitting that Nik Popovic grabbed the ball off the rim, secured it, and drew a foul.
Popovic confidently stepped up to the line as the freshly anointed 45th member of BC’s 1,000-point club. He’d topped the millennium mark earlier in the second half, but he noted after the game that he cared more about the crucial rebound.
The senior from Bosnia and Herzegovina calmly swished both free throws, extending BC’s lead to 71-68. The Eagles immediately pressed on defense. Jared Hamilton jumped in the passing lane of EWU’s Kim Aiken Jr. and subsequently hit a free throw to make it a two-possession game. It was a lead that BC would hold, narrowly escaping the “other” Eagles in the third game of the Gotham Classic, 72-68.
“It’s a great feeling,” Popovic said about scoring his 1,000th career point. “I’ve been working for this for a long time. But we play a game to win, and you have to be ready to make a hustle play.”
Jay Heath led the way for BC’s (4-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) offense with 17 points on the strength of five 3-pointers. Steffon Mitchell was the only Eagles starter not to reach double figures, but the swiss-army-knife junior posted a typical seven-point, nine-rebound, two-block stat line. EWU (2-2) shot the three ball 38 times, but making just 34 percent from deep and 38 percent overall, it fortunately did not find the same success rate as BC’s previous opponent, Belmont.
On the offensive end, BC opened the game with the same firepower and shooting touch that it did against Belmont. BC converted seven of its first eight shots and was getting out in transition, setting up its shooters with open looks. Four of the first five field goals were assisted on, including a pair of triples by Heath and another from Hamilton. The difference between the start against EWU and Belmont, however, was the defense.
EWU found itself with six missed shots and three turnovers, and down 12-0 on the scoreboard before head coach Shantay Legans called his second timeout before the first media break. The opening run also saw Thornton shoot two for a flagrant foul by Tanner Groves.
In the next eight minutes, though, EWU not only weathered the storm, but took control as well. Down 21-12, EWU’s leading scorer, Jacob Davison, took over. The junior had been held off the score sheet in the first 10 minutes, but he made up for it with 10 points in the next two and a half. He would finish as the game’s leading scorer with 26 points.
After missing his first four threes of the contest, Davison connected on his next two in order to cut the deficit to four. BC head coach Jim Christian was irate after a pair of offensive rebounds set up Davison’s second, quickly calling timeout.
On the other end of the court, the shooting barrage that BC had opened with faded fast. After knocking down its first three triples, BC hit just one of its next seven. EWU was also doing a good job at forcing its opponents outside, allowing just four points in the paint in the first 18 minutes of play.
With the game tied, however, BC got a spark from C.J. Felder. The freshman muscled his way inside for an and-one and made another shot in the post in the waning minutes of the first half, staking BC to a 33-31 halftime edge.
Heath opened the second frame the same way he opened the first: with a pair of triples to fire up the BC bench and extend the lead to seven—but EWU just wouldn’t go away. After forcing a few BC turnovers, Aiken Jr. and Davison hit a pair of 3-pointers to bounce back and take a 46-45 lead, EWU’s first of the contest.
The game of runs swung back in BC’s direction with a 6-0 run that saw the team commit to going inside. Popovic drove and was fouled, Felder knocked down a jumper from just outside the paint, and Thornton drove and pulled up for the close-range jumper.
But yet again, BC could not put the game out of reach, watching EWU guard Casson Rouse score a pair of fast-break layups to cut the score to 55-53. Down the stretch, the teams turned to different strategies to try to take the game.
EWU continued to do what it had been doing all game: Shoot the three. In the final four minutes of the contest, EWU attempted six 3-pointers compared to just three 2-pointers.
BC, on the other hand, attacked the paint. It attempted 26 free throws in the game whereas EWU got to the line just six times. The biggest shot from BC down the stretch, however, came when it was down by one with under two minutes in regulation.
Thornton was pushing the ball up the floor and found a wide open Heath in the corner. Heath buried it for his fifth triple, putting BC back up by two on the biggest shot in the freshman’s career so far. It staked BC to a lead that it would not again relinquish. Heath also skied high to post a season-high eight boards, growing into his role on the team.
“I love it when guys make shots—it’s obviously a big part of the game, but there’s a lot of ways to impact a game,” Christian said of Heath. “The eight rebounds [were] monstrous. For a guard, we needed that.”
After Davison banked in a three to cut the lead to one with 10 seconds left, the stage was set for Popovic’s pivotal rebound, which helped ice the 72-68 decision.
Regardless of how close the scoreline was, it was good for BC to get back in the win column after its first setback of the season. It was also beneficial for young players such as Heath and Felder to be playing big minutes in a tight game down the stretch.
“They’re a good basketball team,” Christian added. “Again, we’re playing another team picked to win their league. I think people get so caught up in this name game. We’re trying to play good teams here.”
Featured Image by Kait Devir / For The Heights