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BOB RYAN

Another win pieced together

PROVIDENCE -- They only led for 3 minutes 24 seconds out of 40 minutes, but so what? Against Kent State they never led until the ball settled into the basket after the buzzer had sounded.

They are the Boston College Eagles, now winners of 17 straight. Providence shoulda/coulda/woulda beaten BC before a sellout crowd of 12,448 at the Dunkin' Donuts Center last night, but it didn't, because this is a BC team that truly knows how to win. "BC showed their poise," explained Friars coach Tim Welsh. "Basically, when it came down to the last three minutes, they executed and we didn't. They got better shots. I watched them against Villanova. That's what they did against UConn. They did it to us up there. And that's what they did today."

BC beat ancient rival Providence by a 78-75 score in the 100th renewal of a rivalry that is closer (55-45, PC) than you might think. It was, as Welsh would say, "a hard-fought college basketball game." Providence came out fired up, as anyone would when playing a team that has reached the last week in January without losing. The crowd reacted appropriately as the Friars led by such scores as 25-16 and, with 16:31 remaining, 55-44. Everyone connected with the Providence program smelled Eagle blood.

But BC is getting used to all this. It was much the same atmosphere last Saturday night, when an aroused St. John's team hit BC with a ferocious opening seven minutes, moving to an 18-9 lead. At that point the Eagles kind of looked at the St. John's players and said, "Is that all you got?"

Welsh saw a repeat scenario last night. Sure, his team was up by 11. Didn't matter. "You can see the confidence BC has," Welsh noted. "They are such a poised team. When they got down by 11, they didn't care."

Down by 11, Al Skinner went to his bench, and when Al goes to his bench nowadays that can be a very bad thing for the opponent, because he might be bringing Sean Williams into the game.

Over the years, these two have staged some memorable games, the best of which, BC's 83-82 victory on Feb. 18, 1967, was one of the seminal hoop events in New England history. But in none of those games was a Boston College team in possession of a player remotely resembling Sean Williams. This rivalry, and all BC rivalries, have now entered new territory.

Sean Williams is a 6-foot-10-inch freshman from Mansfield, Texas, and he is fast becoming BC's not-so-secret weapon. Skinner inserted Williams into the game at that 55-44 juncture and went to a zone defense. "With Williams in there," Welsh admitted, "we couldn't score."

Williams is an embryonic Emeka Okafor. He blocks shots. He alters shots. He actually discourages shots. He was on the floor for the final 16:31, and was credited with six blocks, which may sound good, but which was actually a joke. Give him a good nine or 10, and then throw in the alters, and he had a direct effect on about 15 or 16 Providence shots. In one electrifying first-half moment, he blocked a shot with both hands. (I'm gonna guess Ted Sarandis took note.)

He has much to learn. He needs to get stronger, and he will become a better rebounder when he does. His offense is predictably limited. But he understands who he is and what he is supposed to be doing. "He plays within himself," Welsh points out.

Skinner's bench may be small in numbers with Steve Hailey still idled by a severely sprained ankle, but it is a powerful weapon because it is, as Welsh says, "an energy bench." Jermaine Watson bounded into the game almost seven minutes into the first half with his team trailing by 3 (15-12). By halftime he had a 12-point, 6-rebound, 2-steal line.

"Those guys give BC a different look," Welsh says. Hailey is a third "energy player." No wonder BC is becoming such a difficult team to play.

It's not as if the first five are unathletic. Craig Smith (21 points) is a certified inside monster. Sean Marshall (10) is an inside-outside force. Louis Hinnant (8 assists) is an underrated point guard. The 7-foot Nate Doornekamp may not fit into this athletic mold, but he has an interesting collection of skills.

And that leaves 6-7 Jared Dudley, the reigning Sporting News national Player of the Week, who had another spectacularly efficient game with 21 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, and the game's single biggest hoop, a nerveless 3-pointer from the left wing that gave BC a 76-75 lead with 1:20 remaining after the Eagles had gone from 4 up (71-67) to 4 down (75-71) with 3:23 remaining.

"Dudley is terrific," declares Welsh. "He just brings his lunch pail and says, `I will find a way to beat you,' whether it's on the baseline, or on the wing, or in the high post or the low post, or with a step-up jumper. I saw it last year in our second game, when his knowledge of the game became so apparent."

There isn't a coach in America who wouldn't want a Jared Dudley in his lineup. With his all-around skills, his moxie, and his competitiveness, he has become the personification of the Boston College team.

"They are starting to remind me of the Pitt team of the past few years," says Welsh. "They kind of put you through a slow death. They are experienced. They aren't flashy. They have a hard-hat mentality. They just grind it out."

They are also amazingly versatile. "They can invert players, which is one reason they are getting by with just seven," Welsh says. "Watson can play the 1 or the 2. Dudley can play the 3 or the 4. Marshall can play the 2 or the 3. Smith can play the 5."

And Williams appears to be able to guard the 1, the 2, the 3, the 4, and the 5 -- at the same time.

Will they ever lose? Sure. Then we'll see what they're really made of. But they've already had plenty of chances to pick up that first L, and they haven't done it yet. They are 17-0. Attention must be paid.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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