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BC Topped by Western Kentucky in First Round of NIT

Boston College basketball’s season came to a bittersweet ending Wednesday night when they fell victim to their road demons once again in a 79-62 loss to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

The Eagles missed out on the NCAA tournament, but landed their first postseason appearance since 2011 with a 5-seed in the NIT.

Ky Bowman dominated in the first quarter, putting the Eagles up 5 with an emphatic jam and a banked-in three at the horn. The lead didn’t last long, however, with Western Kentucky exploiting BC’s zone down low to the tune of a 22-9 second quarter advantage.

The Eagles had no answers for Hilltoppers forward Justin Johnson all night, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Coach Jim Christian, a former Western Kentucky assistant from 1990-92, switched the Eagles' defensive scheme several times over the course of the night from man to a 1-3-1 zone, but to no avail with the Hilltoppers shooting 55.4% from the field for the game.

While Western Kentucky picked up steam offensively over the course of the game, BC remained stagnant, shooting merely 21.1% from three and 38.5% from the field overall. The Eagles’ struggles from three potentially stemmed from this year’s NIT rule changes in which the three-point line was extended to NBA range and the game consisted of four quarters instead of two halves.

A key second half adjustment by Christian had the Eagles attacking the rim more, and Bowman granted the team their first free throw opportunity early in the half. The Hilltoppers exploited opponents all season long at the line with an average free throw margin of +8.6 attempts per game on the year, and that trend continued last night with a 16 to 9 free throw attempt advantage that infuriated fans and players alike.

With an increase in third quarter aggression came an increase in sloppiness. Lazy turnovers down the stretch killed any BC momentum, and the Western Kentucky lead stretched to 15 by the time the quarter was over.

Freshman Steffon Mitchell was on the floor almost every play in the second half, hustling for rebounds and loose balls, and doing the dirty work that prevented the game from getting out of hand. After an onslaught of transition scoring by the Hilltoppers to start the fourth, a switch to full court press and Mitchell’s inspired play started a 7-0 BC run capped off by a breathtaking up-and-under finish by Bowman to cut the deficit to 10.

Once again, Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury managed to adjust to BC’s defensive scheme, and the Hilltoppers broke away late to end BC’s NIT dreams with a 79-62 victory.

Despite a disappointing finish, BC gave fans a thrilling return to basketball success with a 19-16 record, their first season above .500 since 2010-2011.

The state of basketball in Chestnut Hill is stunning, considering BC’s winless stretch in conference play two years ago. Once the laughing stock of the ACC, the Eagles are back.

Local stars Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman exploded on the national stage, with NBA chatter beginning to rise in Robinson’s case. If Robinson elects to return for a senior season, the Eagles will be returning nearly all of their minutes from this season and will be a trendy pick for an almost certain tournament berth.

The team will need to improve on the road, where they won only two games all year. Coach Christian will need to spread his minutes more, which should be an easy task considering the stellar current freshman and incoming recruiting class led by Steffon Mitchell and Jarius Hamilton, respectively.

The 2017-2018 Boston College men’s basketball season gave fans hope and something to cheer about for the first time in years. Regardless of result, the year served as a step in the right direction for the program, and will hopefully bring them back to the tournament for the first time since 2009.

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