NEW YORK — The last time Boston College guard Ky Bowman was at Barclays Center, he left the court uncertain about his future. His first taste of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament as a freshman last year was cut short by a right knee injury the moment he hit the floor. He had to be helped off the floor and when the Eagles left Brooklyn, they were crossing their fingers that their star guard hadn’t suffered a tear.
They learned soon after that even though Bowman needed minor surgery, he had avoided major damage.
Since that moment, Bowman waited for the chance to return.
The Eagles were back at Barclays on Tuesday, opening up the ACC tournament as the 12th seed against 13th-seeded Georgia Tech.
Their mission was to make a run after going one-and-out the past two years and five of the past eight. In an 87-77 win, Bowman was the motor that drove the Eagles to the next round.
The sophomore fireball had 26 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists to push the Eagles to a second-round matchup against N.C. State on Wednesday afternoon.
“I knew my opportunity was going to come around again, so just being able to come here again and play again was a great feeling for me,” Bowman said. “But being able to get back on the court with my teammates was even better.”
Not even his eight turnovers — many of them late in the second half as Tech made a desperation run, closing BC’s lead to 7 with 2:32 left — could offset his impact. Bowman scored 18 of his points in the second half, getting to the line 13 times and knocking down 10 free throws. BC hit 29 of 37 free throws, including 13 in the last 2:22 to hold off the Yellow Jackets.
“Last night, before I went to sleep, I just thought about how last time I didn’t have the opportunity in the second half,” Bowman said. “So when the second half came around, I knew that that was my time, because last year, I wasn’t able to be with my team in the second half.”
With the Yellow Jackets missing two key pieces — freshman point guard Jose Alvarado, out since Feb. 11 with a dislocated elbow and freshman guard Curtis Haywood II, out since Jan. 31 with stress reaction in his right leg — shot making was a difficult feat for Tech (it missed 9 of their first 12 shots and shot 39.7 percent for the game).
BC took advantage, grabbing 47 rebounds and scoring 40 points in the paint.
The man doing much of the damage around the rim was sophomore forward Nik Popovic, who scored a career-high 20 points, taking advantage of timely opportunities under the basket
“My teammates find a way to feed me all the time,”Popovic said. “Sometimes it’s like I waste balls sometimes. Not this game, I didn’t. So I do a good job recognizing when I have a good day, and they open up shots for me.”
Coming in, eyes were on BC’s first-team All-ACC guard Jerome Robinson. But Robinson struggled, cobbling together 19 points on 5-of-17 shooting.
“I think I forced it a little bit in the beginning,” Robinson said. “Juices flowing, I was excited being in the tournament. But once we found our niche, I think we were fine.”
Bowman made sure the Eagles kept a firm grip on the game at crucial stretches. The Yellow Jackets had cut the lead to 28-22, but the Eagles ended the half on an 8-4 push and Bowman had a hand in each bucket, with three assists and a layup, sending the Eagles into the locker room with a 36-26 lead.
Bowman stretched the Eagles lead to 20 points with 13:36 to go in the second half, crossing over away from a screen, attacking the rim, drawing a foul on Josh Okogie and finishing off the and-one by knocking down the free throw to make it 51-31.
“We depend on him to do a lot of things,” BC coach Jim Christian said. “It’s running our offense, it’s being the point of our defense, it’s rebounding the basketball, leading the break.”
The Eagles now turn their attention to their first second-round game since 2015. The last time the Eagles advanced to the quarterfinals was 2011.
“We knew it was the first step of what we wanted to do,” Robinson said. “We want to win the tournament and we knew we had to do it one game at a time and today’s the first step.”
But for a team that’s just two years removed from going winless in the ACC, Christian wanted his players to take in the victory.
“It’s always the hardest step,” Christian said. “The first game is always the hardest to play. Kids are excited. They’re a little bit nervous in a good way. They’re fighting for their season, as was Georgia Tech. It’s rewarding for everybody that we’re fortunate enough to play the next night — afternoon.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.