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Maturing BC basketball steps up for its next test

Boston College coach Steve Donahue and young players such as Olivier Hanlan will visit Duke Sunday.

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe/file

Boston College coach Steve Donahue, right, and young players such as Olivier Hanlan, left, will visit Duke Sunday.

Almost all of Boston College’s nine Atlantic Coast Conference losses have been by painfully close margins.

The challenge coach Steve Donahue has faced this season has been balancing the urgency of winning with the natural maturation of a young team that is still figuring out how to win.

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It was clear earlier this month when the Eagles had a 5-point lead over a Duke team that was drained and sluggish after flying into Boston the week of the region’s biggest blizzard in years, but failed to close the game out.

It would have been the biggest win in Donahue’s three-year tenure, and it would have been just BC’s third victory over the Blue Devils.

It’s been four years since BC stunned Duke at Conte Forum. Since then, the Eagles have lost six straight matchups.

Duke has won 15 of 17 meetings all time, and when the Eagles visit Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday, where BC has never won, a young team still getting its bearings will be facing a team that’s always had its number.

“I don’t know if there’s anything specific you can do,” Donahue said. “I’m always talking about, whether you’re winning or losing, it’s about how you’re playing and what you’re doing to put yourself in those positions. I don’t want to just accept losses, but I also don’t want to lose sight of where we are at in our development.

“We play seven scholarship players on our freshman and sophomore side, and most of them were not the type when they got here. They got here late and they were not the type that were ready to play necessarily in their freshman and sophomore years and hope you win games.

“But I do think it’s an opportunity where if you develop these kids, they are going to be really helpful down the road, and I don’t want to lose.”

Seven of the Eagles’ conference games have been decided by 5 points or fewer, but they have come out on the winning end just once. They’ve earned a reputation around the conference as a team that can’t be slept on, but also as one still learning how to close out games.

By the same token, Duke has managed to hover at the top of the polls by dodging upsets this season, but it has also taken some hits.

Last month’s 27-point loss at Miami was the most glaring defeat of the season. The 1-point win at BC was an unexpected scare. Then came a loss at Maryland.

But when coach Mike Krzyzewski considers the loss of injured forward Ryan Kelly, he said the losses don’t matter nearly as much as the fact the Blue Devils have been able to maintain.

“For the last 41 days, we’ve been playing without Ryan Kelly,” Krzyzewski said. “So it’s not about what we have lost. It’s about what we’ve won.

“The story for my team is the fact that we are competing and we are doing a good job, in fact, a terrific job, and we have continued to win at a very high level without Ryan. The story isn’t that we lost. The story is how much we’ve won. My guys have done a terrific job in doing that.”

It’s the mark if a winning culture, finding ways to succeed in spite of adversity.

The Eagles have dealt with adversity, too, with Dennis Clifford’s ailing knee limiting his minutes. And through the tough losses, young players like Ryan Anderson, Olivier Hanlan, and Joe Rahon have all grown.

But the next step for them will be turning learning into winning.

“For a young team, I think we are playing well on the road and we played solid at home, as well,” Donahue said. “I don’t have a whole lot of issues with those type of things that would drive a coach crazy, not being emotional, physically ready to play. I think we have done that.

“We just at times have not played consistent defensively for 40 minutes. And it’s obviously our Achilles’ heel and something we address every single day and we are probably sick of it, but we are doing it, we are playing hard. In practice we are trying to get better at it. I’m really pleased with all those things.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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