Every time Boston College missed a free throw, the tie around coach Steve Donahue’s neck got looser and looser.
There was 1:38 left on the clock, the Eagles were down 6 to Pitt, clinging to a chance to make it a two-possession game with their leading scorer, Olivier Hanlan, at the free throw line.
Over his career, the sophomore guard was 79 percent from the line. He had hit 4 of 5 to that point Wednesday night, right in line with his career average.
But he came up empty on the first. Then he watched the second one bounce off the rim.
All Donahue could do was throw his hands up.
The Eagles had climbed out of a 15-point first-half hole to put a scare into a Pitt team that was on shaky footing, having dropped three straight games coming into Conte Forum.
But the littlest things held them back. When he looked back at the Eagles’ 66-59 loss, Donahue said those were the most crucial.
The Eagles forced 17 turnovers, cashed them in for 22 points, and for a fleeting stretch seemed to have the Panthers on their heels.
But a 4-for-16 night from 3-point range and 13-for-22 night from the stripe sabotaged any chance of an upset.
When Patrick Heckmann, a 77 percent free throw shooter for his career, came up empty on a pair that would have cut it to 5 with seven seconds left, Donahue seemed to take the misses like body blows.
“It’s one of those crazy years,” Donahue said. “I don’t know how to put my finger on it. We’re good foul shooters, we work on it a ton. But winning teams figure that out and get it done. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.”
The things that keep teams from going on long, game-shifting runs like the 22-4 stretch the Panthers ripped off in the first half (sparked by Cameron Wright, who scored 8 points in the first half and finished with 14), are the things that define good teams, Donahue said.
When he watched Pitt forward Lamar Patterson score 8 of his 16 points, dish out three assists, and drill a pair of 3-pointers in the second half — constantly thwarting BC’s attempts and hijacking control — Donahue saw something his team lacked.
“He’s an older player, fifth-year senior,” Donahue said. “Just as much poise as you can find in college basketball. I think at that point, he was like, ‘Just relax, we’re going to get it.’ And they had a great run at that point.
“I look in our eyes and we don’t have that, ‘It’s OK, we’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get it done.’ We don’t have it like they have it. We’re working on it. We’ll get there, but we don’t have that. I think that true belief in yourself and what you’re doing for 40 minutes, we don’t have that yet. And that’s what we’ve got to continue to work on.”
After a 5-point loss to Florida State Sunday, Pitt had every reason to be tight. The Panthers’ losing streak put them on the NCAA Tournament bubble at 20-7 overall and 8-6 in the ACC.
But it never showed. They outrebounded the Eagles, 33-18, and took away the 3-pointer, BC’s bread and butter, in the first half, holding it to 1 of 7.
“You saw why Pittsburgh has a good program in order with [coach] Jamie [Dixon],’’ Donahue said. “They’re real solid. They don’t get flustered. They play hard . . . That’s why if they’re not a Top 25 team, they’re right there.”
With 25 points, Hanlan became the third Eagle to reach 1,000 career points as a sophomore. The two before him — Troy Bell and Craig Smith — sit 1-2 on the school’s all-time scoring list.
Pitt’s Talib Zanna, who spent the week dealing with ankle injuries, dropped 21 points and grabbed six rebounds.
The Eagles (7-21, 3-12) were left with yet another single-digit loss, their 11th of the season. For Donahue, the line between them at the bottom of the conference and being in the thick of the race is excruciatingly thin. At the same time, the reasons the Eagles have struggled are abundantly clear.
“We’re damn close,” Donahue said. “That’s the frustrating part about it for me. I don’t think they realize it. Pitt, I look in their eyes, they know who they are. They’re not getting flustered with anything that happens. They know who they are. We don’t understand exactly how we’re going to win day in and day out.
“Hoping it comes, trying to tweak it, do everything I can. And I think they’re close. I’ve got to get them and inspire them to believe in what I’m saying and then we’ll get there.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.