NEW YORK -- Al Skinner was slowly making his way down a long corridor to a freight elevator at Madison Square Garden when a reporter called out to him, saying this year Selection Sunday would be kinder to his Boston College basketball team.
Turning, Skinner smiled and said, "I would think so."
The Eagles, even after suffering a 62-53 loss to top-seeded Pittsburgh last night in the Big East tournament semifinals before a Garden crowd of 19,528, are not likely to experience any surprises tomorrow like the NCAA selection committee sucker punch they absorbed last year when they were left out of the Big Dance.
This year, there is no question they're dancing.
BC made certain of that by arriving in New York as one of the hottest teams in the conference, winning 21 games (nine conference) and eight of its last 10 in the regular season, including the last five in a row, to bolster its case for a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And that certainly had to remove some of the disappointment the Eagles (23-9) felt after bowing to the sixth-ranked Panthers (29-3) for the third year in a row in the semifinals.
"I just can't wait until Sunday," said a hopeful Craig Smith, who led the Eagles with 20 points and 12 rebounds. "It's a new beginning for us -- a new birth."
Smith became the first player in conference history to record double-doubles in three consecutive tourney games after getting 16 and 14 in a 68-57 first-round win over Georgetown Wednesday and 22 and 10 in Thursday's 57-54 victory over No. 19 Syracuse.
"I just came here to the tournament with a hot hand," said Smith, who in five career Big East tourney games has averaged 20.8 points and 10.2 rebounds. "But I didn't care if I had 6 points or 6 rebounds, I just wished for the win."
Smith's dominating performance in the paint wasn't enough to help BC overcome a pair of sloppy, turnover-prone stretches in the second half that eroded its 26-22 halftime lead; its woeful perimeter shooting (19 of 53) after getting just two jump shots (a Jared Dudley 13-footer on the baseline and a Jermaine Watson 3-pointer) the entire game, marking the only two in BC's last four-plus halves; or Pittsburgh guard Carl Krauser, who led a trio of Panther double-figure scorers with 18 points.
"He's a tough guard," Smith said of Krauser, the 6-foot-2-inch sophomore from the Bronx, N.Y. "Guards from New York are supposed to be tough. I got a piece of it today."
So did the rest of the Eagles.
After Smith gave the Eagles a 30-27 lead, the Panthers capitalized on a pair of turnovers to cap a 6-0 spurt on a Krauser lane jumper and a Julius Page driving layup for a 33-30 lead with 15:56 to go.
Louis Hinnant, plagued by foul trouble early, gave the Eagles a 34-33 lead when he attacked the baseline for a driving basket, but Jaron Brown (11 points) answered with a pair of foul shots to give the Panthers a 35-34 lead with 12:01 to go.
"There's no question we didn't handle the ball as well as we needed to in the second half," said Skinner, whose team committed 15 turnovers that led to 17 Pittsburgh points.
Despite that, the Eagles kept it tight, twice pulling within 2 on Watson's trey (50-48) and a Steve Hailey lane runner (52-50). But Krauser answered with a tough lane jumper with five seconds on the shot clock that made it 54-50 with 1:46 to go.
The Eagles began to unravel when Smith drew his second personal on a questionable call, then had a shot off a strong baseline move trickle off the rim. Krauser then sealed it when he was fouled by Hailey while hoisting a trey, and went to the line, where he hit all three foul shots to send the Panthers to their fourth consecutive appearance in the tourney final and BC back to Chestnut Hill to await word of its NCAA seed, destination, and opponent.
"I think they're going to do very well," Krauser said. "BC is a very tough, physical team. Very relentless on the boards. They don't take losing very well. I think they're gonna do well and represent the Big East in a well-respected manner. They're going to go out there and win some games in the tournament."