Prior to tip off of Tuesday night's game between Boston College and North Carolina, I was amazed at the amount of baby blue roaming the concourses, waiting to come into the arena. When the gates opened, it was a Tar Heel rush for pictures, videos, and memories of warmups. The chants started early, they continued often, and it seemed, like the Duke game earlier in the year, if BC would be cheered off their home court by a large number of road team fans.
But something strange happened. Although the crowd started in small numbers sitting on their hands, the Eagles inspired their fans and elevated their play. Playing one of their best games of the season, they jumped out to a big lead on North Carolina, even as Conte Forum remained one of the quieter arenas in college basketball. Fans lined up to the cavernous sideline, with the closer baselines devoid of students and fans. The smattering of claps for BC met a deafening silence from UNC supporters, no doubt shocked by what was unfolding in front of them.
Then came the second half. As BC's upset bid grew stronger and stronger, Conte Forum grew more alive until the second half erupted in a cacophony of support. Boston College fans on one side, UNC fans on another. "Tar! Heel!" being met with a "Let's go Eagles!" Even if the crowd itself wasn't 100% in favor of BC, it seemed like, on Tuesday, the crowd felt the moment and was able to react.
The upset bid ultimately fell short, with the eighth-ranked Tar Heels snapping a two-game losing streak with a three-point victory in which they led for only the final three minutes and change. The Eagles led for virtually the entire game, but losing it at the end, they fell to 0-11 in league play.
That didn't change what happened, though. If there's one thing I've been very critical about, it's dwindling fan support through the tough times. I've been at odds, sometimes with my own coworkers at BC Interruption, about my feelings about the fan base. I've complained that a fickle fan base owes it to the efforts of the players to show up, to support them, and to elevate their play. I've admitted that it's harder to do this when the teams are losing, losing a lot, and losing big, but I've claimed that's when true fandom, the true element of being a fan, really comes into play.
A couple of weeks ago, the Florida State game hit a new low. The Eagles lost by 10 in front of barely 2,000 people at Conte Forum. Haltime featured a guy playing "Simon Says" (or is it "Sez?"). The swath of empty seats and scattering of fans throughout the arena made it feel so much more empty, and it was essentially open season about the state and direction of programs at Boston College for anyone who wanted to bring it up.
Tuesday night saw Conte Forum come alive for the first time in years. Over 5,000 fans listed in attendance, but it felt so much more than that. When Garland Owens finished an alley-oop, swung through the air, hit the ground, and got up growling, the crowd erupted. Dennis Clifford banged with the best in the nation, crashed the glass, and dunked his way into an eruption of the crowd. When Eli Carter responded to a Tar Heel run with a step-back three of his own, the bench, the students, and the fans all went nuts. With BC seemingly in control, Clifford punctuated a couple of big plays with a flex to the crowd and a primal yell. UNC made mental mistakes, no doubt from the noise which, unexpectedly, became organic.
After the game, I asked Jim Christian, Dennis Clifford, and Eli Carter about what it meant to play in front of that atmosphere, with a full crowd. Clifford answered, saying, "It's what everyone dreams about. It was an awesome environment, and it's what you want when you're shooting in your driveway."
Anyone in the building on Tuesday could've fed off the energy. A couple of times, I felt myself yelling at a couple of plays to which the gentlemen sitting next to me in the press box couldn't hear. I compared it a little bit to old high school gyms and the feeling I'd get in a Hoosiers-type atmosphere. You had fans of one team chanting, and you had fans of the other team chanting back. Critics will point to the fact that there were so many UNC fans in the house, but if you were there, the second half was something to behold.
Part of my argument about fan support is that it can elevate a team on any given night. It can distract even the best teams, and it can elevate even the worst teams. Players live for the moment when everything else melts away, when they're not thinking about the game, when the atmosphere on their field of play becomes one with the atmosphere off of it. Clifford used the term "surreal," a word that goes along with the unconscious nature of what other athletes in other sports at other schools have told me it feels like when games get that intense.
What I saw on Tuesday night was a range of emotions the likes of which I haven't seen in a long time for a Boston College sporting event. It was organic, unforced, and it was thick. In terms of basketball, I can't remember the last time Conte Forum felt like that for a home game (remember that the Syracuse upset was on the road). Even through the team's struggles, it showed what a team running on emotion can do when it's feeding on raw emotion from the stands. It was electric, and while it didn't fix anything (BC still lost, after all), it was exactly what it should've been.
For all the times I've been critical of the fans, they showed up and turned out for their team on Tuesday. With Syracuse standing on Sunday on the horizon and four home games remaining, it would be great if they showed up and helped lift their team in those games as well. Staring down the barrel of a winless season, this could be the missing piece to help push this team over the hump and get them, finally, in the win column.