The security guards in safety orange polos and black cargo pants were kneeling down at every corner of the court. The student section suddenly felt like it was hovering over the floor. The volume was at that awkward level at which every sound felt like it was part of one adrenaline-fueled hum.
It was that close.
With 18 seconds left, Boston College was down, 62-61, and had the ball with a chance to knock off No. 4 Duke.
This was the Duke team that had been ranked in the top 10 for 107 straight weeks, the Duke team that had beaten the Eagles 10 of the last 11 times they faced off, the Duke team that along with North Carolina is still the Atlantic Coast Conference litmus test.
It was also the Duke team that had been upset by Miami, that had been underrated by preseason projections, and that had arrived in Boston just six hours before game time, getting from Logan Airport to Conte Forum with barely enough time to take pictures of the snowplows for Instagram and drop off their bags.
The Eagles had been up 5 with 2:15 left, then up 2 after Quinn Cook shook the frost off his jumper and knocked down a 3, then down 1 after sending Blue Devils big man Mason Plumlee to the line for two free throws.
Yet, a win — which would have been one of the biggest in recent history — was still close enough to grab.
“It’s not that bad of a situation,” said BC coach Steve Donahue.
Donahue had called a timeout with 2:30 left just to make sure the moment didn’t become too big for his team. But with 18 seconds left, he called one to draw up the play he thought would get the Eagles the best look at a game-winner.
He put the ball in the hands of his freshman guard Olivier Hanlan, and when Duke busted up the play, Hanlan drove hard to the rim and got a pull-up jumper but watched it bounce back-iron.
There was a scramble for the ball, but it was irrelevant.
A pile of Eagles fell to the hardwood despondent while a huddle of Blue Devils celebrated their narrow escape under the basket. BC had been close before — to NC State, Miami, and Maryland — but with its 62-61 loss to the Blue Devils the margin between program win and just another conference loss was agonizingly slim.
“You have no idea how this tears you up,” Donahue said.
Hanlan scored 20 points on 4 of 11 shooting, doing most of his damage by getting to the rim and knocking down free throws (11 of 12), but he seemed to carry the weight of the game’s most pressurized moments.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I’m still getting used to this environment. I could do a way better job in these types of situations.”
In a week in which it seemed like every team at the top of the polls fell from the scaffolding, Duke gladly took the near-miss.
No. 1 Indiana, No. 2 Florida, and No. 3 Michigan were all picked off, clearing the rungs for the Blue Devils to likely climb up into the top spot, but they realize how close they came to joining the wreckage.
Had they lost, anyone would’ve accepted their alibi.
Flying into an area that was smacked by 2 feet of snow, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “There was a time we didn’t even know if the game was going to be played.’’
Originally, the Blue Devils were scheduled to fly out Saturday afternoon, but they had to push it back to Sunday morning. They didn’t arrive until around noon for the 6 p.m. tip.
“Obviously that’s going to have an impact,” Krzyzewski said. “If it’s 3 feet, 4 feet [of snow], what are you going to do? Throughout the season if you want to have a really good season you have to fight human nature.
“There is a lot of human nature stuff going on. That has some impact, but the main impact though was Boston College playing great. This was about them. They were terrific. All those other things you got to deal with. They have to deal with the fact they got killed against Miami and they handled that pretty damn well.”
This game tested them. They trailed for the first 19 minutes. Ryan Anderson scored 17 points and grabbed six rebounds. Dennis Clifford started for the first time since November, played 14 minutes and when he ran into foul trouble was spelled by Eddie Odio, who did everything in his power to irritate the Blue Devils (5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist).
“Nothing about tonight was easy,” Krzyzewski said. “These are games that any team can lose and teams throughout the country are losing them.”
The tough part for BC isn’t just having to forget that the win that could have been the signature of the rebuilding process Donahue started three years ago was within touching distance.
It’s having to move on as if it didn’t happen at all.
“I’m extremely disappointed that we could have beaten an elite program like Duke,” Donahue said. “We had a great chance, it’s going to tear me up for a long time. But I’ve got a Monday practice, and a Tuesday practice, and we’ve got to beat Wake Forest on Wednesday, that’s where the focus is at.
“It’s a tough loss for them because they played definitely well enough to win. [Duke was] deserving of winning. I’m not saying we weren’t either. They were. They played really well.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.