NEW YORK — In all the years Boston College coach Jim Christian and Clemson coach Brad Brownell spent walking parallel paths, cutting their teeth leading mid-major programs, Thursday’s Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinal matchup at Barclays Center was one of the rare times when their paths crossed on the court.
Brownell knew first-hand the challenges Christian faced trying to rebuild BC’s basketball program because it wasn’t that long ago that Brownell had to do the same at Clemson. Brownell knew Christian was in good hands with BC’s new athletic director Martin Jarmond because Brownell was an assistant coach at UNC Wilmington during Jarmond’s playing days there.
When he found out Jarmond had taken the BC job last spring, Brownell made a phone call.
“I told him when he got the job at Boston College that he had one hell of a coach and that people probably don’t realize it, but you will see it this year with this team,” Brownell said.
The Eagles took a long-awaited step forward with their run to the ACC quarterfinals. They knocked off Georgia Tech on Tuesday, then N.C. State on Wednesday — the first time since 2006 that an Eagles team won two ACC tournament games.
Winning three games in three days — especially facing a Clemson team armed with an assortment of offensive weapons and the conference’s third stingiest defense — proved to be too steep a challenge on Thursday.
After falling into a 16-point second-half hole, the Eagles scrambled furiously to close it to a 2-point game with 5:46 left, but ultimately left Brooklyn with a 90-82 loss.
And looking back on what he told Jarmond last year, Brownell acknowledged he was almost too prescient for his own good.
“Dadgum, I almost saw too much of it today,” Brownell said. “But [Christian’s] just done an unbelievable job with it. He’s got these guys playing at a high level. Their belief is at a high level. And he’s just does things the right way in our business.”
The Eagles hadn’t reached the quarterfinals of an ACC tournament since 2011. They got there largely on the shoulders of their two playmakers in the backcourt, Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman.
Even though Robinson finished with 20 points and Bowman scored 23, the Tigers made it their mission to make every touch they got difficult.
The duo combined to shoot 1 for 9 in the first half (1 for 5 from 3-point range). Bowman’s only point in the first half came at the free throw line. Robinson’s only field goal was an early 3-pointer.
Whenever Robinson tried to work the pick-and-roll, he ran into a wall. If it wasn’t the 6-foot-7-inch Aamir Simms in his way, holding him from getting into the paint, it was the 6-9 Elijah Thomas.
“Trying to look around them, trying to get a pass, you didn’t want to turn the ball over and get them on the break, so that was hard for us,” Bowman said.
Robinson could hardly move without behind harassed by multiple defenders.
“Just tried to make them make tough plays,” said Clemson guard Gabe Devoe III. “We know they can shoot the ball well. Just making them make tough plays and trying to run them in transition. They played three games in three days. We knew they would have a little tired legs, so just trying to get out in transition.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers showered BC with shots from deep, going 9 for 17 from 3-point range in the first half and 12 for 28 overall. The Eagles found themselves in a 16-point hole with 13:48 left in the second half.
Brownell never got comfortable.
“You could just tell the confidence that they were playing with today, that they were going to come back on us and make a fight,” Brownell said.
BC closed to within 2 with 5:46 left when Bowman knocked down a corner 3-pointer. But Clemson answered with an 11-3 run.
“They just kept scoring,” Robinson said. “We ended up not getting a couple stops late in the stretch. They got a couple tough baskets, and we ended up missing a couple open threes that I thought we could have hit, and it’s just the way the game goes sometimes.”
Still, the Eagles finished the season with 19 wins, their most since 2011. It was just two years ago that the Eagles went winless in ACC play. Now they’ve put themselves in position for a bid to the National Invitational Tournament. The opportunity for postseason experience is invaluable for a program gaining confidence, Christian said.
“I think our belief in ourselves and in each other is what’s got us this far,” Robinson said. “And I think that we also believe that we deserve to be in the postseason, and I think we worked hard enough to, and as Coach said, our culture has definitely changed since these last two weeks.”
Even as the season came to an abrupt halt, Christian was able to offer his team some perspective.
“I told them after the game that when we first got here, there was a lot of guys that didn’t want to wear Boston College basketball shirts,” he said. “I thought they brought a lot of pride with how they played here and how they played all year to Boston College.”
Robinson, the ACC’s leading scorer, will have a decision to make about whether he’ll stay at BC for his senior season or test the NBA Draft waters.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I just want to play here in the postseason and when that time comes, I’ll talk with my parents and coach and whatever happens, happens. I’ll talk to my coach and my parents — they’re really the decision-makers, not me, to be honest.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.