A year ago, Steve Donahue would have tried to throw out a life line.
The Boston College coach would have looked at the clock, which was running under 20 seconds, looked at the scoreboard, which had his Eagles trailing to Virginia, 52-50, looked at Patrick Heckmann, who had picked up his dribble after driving hard into a lane clogged with bodies, and Donahue’s gut would have told him Heckmann was in trouble.
“I would’ve called timeout,” Donahue said. “I would’ve said, ‘I just don’t trust him.’ ”
But Sunday he let it play out.
It was the second time in as many weeks the Eagles faced a team that was coming off an upset of Duke. They trailed by 11 with 10:24 left and by 8 with 4:47 to go. But it was a position they’d been in time and again this season.
“I sensed, ‘You know what? I think he knows what he’s doing here,’ ” Donahue said of Heckmann.
Joe Rahon was at the 3-point line, ready to catch and shoot; the only issue was whether Heckmann would be able to find him.
“I had confidence in him,” Rahon said. “I knew he’d find me.”
Heckmann came to a jump stop, spun out to his right, and hit Rahon, who drained a 3 with two defenders scrambling to get a hand in his face — one of them fouling him midair.
The shot gave BC the lead, and even though Rahon missed the free throw, after coming back inch by inch the Eagles were able to hold on and claim a 53-52 win that may not have made many ripples in the Atlantic Coast Conference but had an overwhelming significance for a team that exhibited great perseverance.
Before the game, BC’s longtime sports information director Dick Kelley, who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago, was given an award for courage by the US Basketball Writers Association. Sharp and spry, Kelley was known for being immersed in the school’s basketball program, staying connected to players and coaches long after they left — whenever former Eagles Jared Dudley and Craig Smith return, they make sure to pay him a visit.
The disease has confined him to a wheelchair and limited his speech, but he’s still a fixture at Conte Forum, watching from press row.
“If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down fighting in his honor,” Donahue said. “That’s for sure.”
Kelley received an ovation from the 5,062 fans as he was surrounded by the team and members of BC’s sports information department. When the Eagles completed their comeback, they all walked to the end of the floor to share the win with Kelley.
The week Rahon arrived at the Heights last fall, Kelley invited him to his home for dinner, getting to know the freshman guard and introducing him to the BC family.
“It meant everything,” Rahon said. “We didn’t have to go out and win for him, but we were going to play as hard as we possibly could for him.”
When Donahue took the BC job three years ago, Kelley was constantly dropping by.
“It’s hard not to get emotional about him,” Donahue said. “When I first got here, he was in my office all the time. Meeting our guys, he encouraged me about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, how great it is, and then just spreading that throughout our team, his love of BC and his love of our program.”
Facing stingy Virginia (20-9, 10-6 ACC), BC needed certain things to break its way, but for stretches, they refused to.
When Ryan Anderson and the Cavaliers’ Akil Mitchell and Jontel Evans all scrambled for the ball with 33.5 seconds left and BC trailing, 51-50, the Eagles wanted a jump ball. Knowing the possession arrow was going his way, Donahue had two thumbs in the air, looking for the call. Referee Les Jones blew his whistle — and pointed to the Virginia bench, where Tony Bennett frantically had been calling for a timeout.
“There’s so many things that went against us,” Donahue said. “There’s so many calls where I thought, ‘Damn, that’s a tough one.’ It’s probably the right call, but it’s a hard one to swallow. That loose ball, we were right there. A lot of times teams don’t get that timeout.”
Instead of possession, the Eagles had to foul and roll the dice, hoping to catch a break. They got it when Joe Harris missed the second of two free throws.
“How many times does he do that?” Donahue said. “Not very often.”
In a season in which BC (13-16, 5-11) has had to play through growing pains, this game was about resilience.
“When you have someone that loves a place that much and wants to help you — and there’s no ulterior motive, wins and losses, they don’t matter — he’s just a very unique guy,” Donahue said of Kelley. “What he’s going through is, for all of us, an incredibly tough thing to watch, but it’s just also amazing how he handled it. Just very inspirational.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.