In so many ways, the 2017 upset of No. 1 Duke is a story of a game that took place on a snowy afternoon in Chestnut Hill. But we already wrote a recap about that game, and we also mentioned why that game in the context of the season was pretty awesome. But what makes this game remarkable in the history of this decade is what surrounded this game– the lead up into the game– essentially what surrounded it. So, in order to tell this story properly, I’m going to backtrack a little bit.
A Dark Era
I started writing for BC Interruption leading into the 2015-16 season. I wrote spot pieces here and there, but my main job was simple: cover the Boston College men’s basketball team.
As luck would have it, that was the year where the Eagles set a mark in futility. After Olivier Hanlan left early for the Draft, the Eagles were left with a patchwork team. Dennis Clifford was the only legitimate big on the team, and there was not a lot of cohesion. Sure, Eli Carter, a transfer guard, had his moments, but he ruined so many others by his hero ball tendencies. Matt Milon had his moments too, but he was a freshman, and really only functioned, at best, as a sixth man in the Eagles’ rotation. Sammy Barnes-Thompkins also came into his own towards the latter of the season, but again only could be as good as his freshman version of himself could allow him to be.
The end result of all of that was a winless season in conference, a black mark on a proud program. Questions immediately surrounded the program, as would be expected after a year of abject futility. And to make matters worse, the Eagles lost Milon and Barnes-Thompkins to transfer, leaving a gap in the guard corps.
The recruiting class brought in some help. The Eagles brought in a heralded recruit in Ty Graves, who, along with a lesser known recruit named Ky Bowman, was expected to play a big role as the 1 guard immediately to complement a sophomore 2 guard by the name of Jerome Robinson, who had shown a lot of promise the year before he had his season cut short by injury. Nik Popovic, a forward who kind of flew under the radar, was also in the recruiting class.
Immediately that team drew ire after a loss to lowly Nicholls State. Yeah, the team the year before didn’t win a game in conference, which was bad enough. But this was Nicholls freaking State. Sure the Eagles lost the previous year to UMass Lowell, but that was because of a norovirus outbreak. What was BC’s excuse this time? I’d put money on no one in the 3,122 person crowd at Conte Forum that November evening knowing where Nicholls State was located going into that game, and yet the Eagles lost to them. The Eagles rebounded before losing two games to formidable opponents, then split two games against Ivy League opponents.
And then, the Hartford game.
If there were concerns about the team going into the Hartford game, they increased tenfold after the Eagles dropped a 65-63 result to Hartford at home. Coupled with the Nicholls State game, it appeared the program was in free fall.
Basketball is a game of runs, a game of momentum, a game where the slightest change in the pendulum swinging can mean the world. For a season and a half to this point, the Eagles has no momentum. They were a giant brought to their knees with little hope for the future.
But that’s the weird thing about basketball– sometimes with a slight change not perceivable to the naked eye momentum could change, and a team could go on a run.
For the Eagles, a shift in tide came with a Nik Popovic tip. At Madison Square Garden, the Eagles were taking on an Auburn team in a sort of opposite state compared to the Eagles. The Tigers had a coach familiar to Boston College fans named Bruce Pearl who was in the process of turning the program around. Pearl had just led the Tigers to an upset of Kentucky a year before and the Tigers were looking up as a program.
And yet, the Eagles and Tigers were neck and neck down the stretch, and with a made free throw by A.J. Turner, a player in the same class as Jerome Robinson, the Eagles took the lead. Yet Turner missed the back end, and Auburn got the rebound and immediately called timeout. Murmurs started amongst the BC faithful at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Auburn inbounded and a few seconds later Ky Bowman fouled Danjel Purifoy, who had been killing the Eagles all game. He made his two shots, giving the Tigers a 71-70 lead. Ky Bowman brought the ball up, took a shot, and the rest is left to the annals of history.
The Eagles’ win catapulted them to a stretch where they won four out five games. The Eagles were humming. Sure, Ty Graves leaving was a blow, but Ky Bowman had proven to be a great option at the 1 guard himself, and things were looking up. The stretch culminated in a New Year’s Day upset of Syracuse, exorcising the demons from the previous year, giving the Eagles a much needed conference win.
But, as any basketball fan could tell you, just as quickly as you get a good run going, the basketball gods can just as quickly take it away. After the Syracuse game, the Eagles would only win one more game, and slid down the stretch, crashing out of the first round of the ACC Tournament. To make matters worse, Ky Bowman left the game due to injury.
During my time on the basketball beat, there are certain stories that I remember hearing for the first time. The Chipotle story comes to mind.
I distinctly remember walking down Commonwealth Avenue from campus back to my apartment on April 10, 2017 when I got a message in the BC Interruption group chat. It wasn’t anything remarkable to get a message– we probably send about 100 messages a day in that thing– but for some reason I opened this one immediately.
In that message was a note that A.J. Turner was transferring.
Turner wasn’t anything special– at least he was not at the level of Bowman or Robinson– but he stood out in my mind because he was a regular starter on the team. When Matt Milon and Sammy Barnes-Thompkins left, it sucked to be sure, but they were at the sixth man level. They could have been something more, but Milon had not shown anything more than being a three point specialist and Barnes-Thompkins was a blow but replaceable. There was no getting around Turner being a big deal, and was more to the point a big problem.
A Glimmer of Hope
The Eagles’ recruiting class was not remarkable in 2017– Luka Kraljević was really the only player coming in with any recruiting love. The big get for the Eagles was a transfer from Illinois State, Deontae “Teddy” Hawkins, who went back and forth on his commitment but ultimately came to the Heights to play for the Eagles.
This was kind of a put up or shut up kind of year for the Eagles. Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson had turned into one of the best backcourts in the country, and Hawkins was formidable inside. If there was ever a chance for the Eagles to do something, this was the year.
The Eagles started off strong, picking up three wins before dropping a tough game against a very good Texas Tech team. Going to the Eagles’ game against Nebraska in late November, the Eagles were 5-2– not great, but certainly an improvement. It appeared the Eagles had some momentum behind them– certainly more than in recent memory.
But, eleven minutes into the game, the momentum was threatened.
At 11:20 in the first half, Teddy Hawkins, the Eagles’ third leading scorer and top rebounder, was subbed out for Steffon Mitchell. Hawkins did not return in the game, or the season. Days later it was announced that he was sidelined with a knee injury. The Eagles lost the game against Nebraska, but that along with the victory against Hartford days later seemed secondary.
A Cold Day in Boston
December 9, 2017 was a busy day for Conte Forum. The arena first hosted a men’s basketball matchup against No. 1 Duke, and then the last men’s hockey game before the break. The Bruins were playing on the other side of town at 7 PM, and the Patriots were in the middle of yet another run to the Super Bowl. It was a crowded day in the Boston sports calendar.
And it was snowing. And cold, very very cold. Given what happened that day, hell freezing over is probably not the world’s worst analogous cliché.
No one was expecting BC to win. If the 1,545 words that I have already written up to this points was not enough to convince you why that was, I’ll sum it up here: BC was bad for a long time, and while showing signs of life no reasonable person expected BC to compete with big, bad Duke. Here on BCI, no one picked BC to win, and the writer who wrote the preview (not me) even went as far to say this:
Who gives a damn about food? After the loss of Hawkins, I’m ready to give up. First Anthony Brown’s knee, and now Hawkins. I have two healthy knees that I would love to give up to help them. They need them more than I do. I need them to have them more than I need me to have them.
Ask most basketball fans what is necessary in order to pull of an upset, and you will probably get two requirements: keep it close throughout the game, and have a lead at halftime.
For much of the first half, the game was close. The Blue Devils led by as much as six at one point in the half, but the game never felt out of reach for the Eagles. And down the stretch of the first half, the Eagles surged, pushing back, going on a run to get the Eagles to the locker room up 48-41.
I was at The Fours down by The Garden watching the game with a friend. We had both decided not to go to the game because tickets were too expensive (who wants to spend $65 to see your team lose?), but we decided to stick around and watch the game at the bar.
We were (and are) both seasoned BC sports veterans, so we had seen this song and dance before. The Eagles were showing signs of life for sure, but this was a team that had just over a year ago lost to Nicholls State, and a year before that went winless. I had both facts fresh in my mind as I was only just recently moved from the men’s basketball beat to men’s hockey. To make a long story short, we weren’t hopeful.
In the second half, the Blue Devils came back with a vengeance. Like a boxer taking punches from an opponent on the offensive, the Eagles stood as best they could but eventually with 7:06 left the Blue Devils took a very tenuous lead that stood until the last three minutes of the game.
Jerome Robinson was very much the leader of this 2017-18 team. He was introduced to the world of Division I basketball very much via trial by fire. His first season was the infamous winless season in-conference, and he was expected to immediately play a huge role on the team. He started with Eli Carter by his side and showed signs of brilliance before getting hurt to end his season. During the 2016-17 season, Robinson appeared to find his groove with Ky Bowman, and the duo eventually clicked and fed off each other.
Now in his junior year, Robinson was in somewhat a culmination of his time at BC. It was not unreasonable to think at this point that Robinson was thinking towards the NBA Draft, and there was speculation that this was the last year for Robinson. Conversely, this was the last opportunity for Robinson, the face of the rebuild, the guy who stayed, beloved by BC basketball fans everywhere, to make an impact on his program.
I highly doubt that was in his mind with 2:56 left in regulation when he came down with a defensive rebound off an attempted trey by Trevon Duval, but it was the start of an effort by Robinson that would make his mark on the program forever.
Robinson got that rebound and drove the length of the court, and nine seconds later made a three pointer off an assist from Ky Bowman to pull the Eagles within one. At the 1:32 mark, Gary Trent Jr. gave the ball up, and the Eagles had a chance for a go-ahead shot. Robinson did not disappoint, draining a three pointer, again assisted by Ky Bowman, giving the Eagles the lead, and the sell-out crowd something to cheer about.
At that point, it was no longer a pipe dream. BC was in the driver’s seat, and just needed to work down the clock. Duke put up a fight, but after Ky Bowman pulled a rebound off a Gary Trent Jr. prayer that was of no consequence, the horn sounded, and the Eagles had sealed their biggest victory in a long, long time.
I remember the first time I went to a BC sporting event at Conte Forum. I was struck by the way the light covers would sometimes open and close for mood effect. I had been at arenas before with lights like that, but I never saw them open and close independently of one another for mood and atmosphere.
They did at the Duke game, and coupled with the students storming the court it lent itself to a party atmosphere. And why not? For the first time in a long time, the Boston College faithful had something to celebrate.
Beating a No. 1 team is special– the 2019-20 season has been an anomaly because it has happened so much. What made this game special was what surrounded it, what led the Eagles to this game. No one gave the Eagles a chance in this game. The program was left for dead. Because of the efforts of so many in the program, the Eagles emerged from the dark ages, and pulled a remarkable upset and reintroduced the Eagles to the national conversation, at least for a little while.
What made this game special was not the game itself, but what it took to get there.