5 takeaways from BC basketball’s season-opening win over Wake Forest

Derryck Thornton was everywhere in his debut with the Eagles.

Boston College guard Derryck Thornton celebrates team's win over Wake Forest on Wednesday.
Boston College guard Derryck Thornton celebrates after taking a charge late in the Eagles' 77-70 home win over Wake Forest on Wednesday. –Barry Chin/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

After dominating the first half Wednesday, Boston College was in danger of letting its lead slip away against a Wake Forest team that showed no intention of folding.

Once up as many as 19 early in the second half, the Eagles watched the Demon Deacons whittle the margin to eight with 8:26 remaining.

BC needed a bucket, and it turned to a new-yet-experienced option in Derryck Thornton. The graduate transfer from the University of Southern California, playing in his first game with the Eagles, caught a pass from Jay Heath and drilled a 3-pointer from the wing to push the lead to double-digits.

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It was the biggest bucket of the night for Thornton in a career-best, 23-point effort, and it helped the Eagles (1-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) earn a season-opening 77-70 home win over Wake Forest (0-1, 0-1 ACC) at Conte Forum.

Thornton was a catalyst, but he didn’t do it alone. The freshman Heath racked up 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, five rebounds, four assists, and a steal in his collegiate debut. Nik Popovic added 18 points, and eight players scored in total.

The Eagles only turned the ball over once in the first half, racked up 18 points off turnovers compared to two for Wake, and dominated the points-in-the-paint battle, 38-22.

BC now already has one ACC win after finishing with five a season ago, and it heads into Sunday’s noon road matchup with the University of South Florida with momentum.

“This was a very big game because it was the first game, it was an ACC game, and it was a home game,” BC coach Jim Christian said.

Here are five things we learned from the opener:

Derryck Thornton was everywhere.

Thornton views his opportunity with Boston College as a fresh start. After stints with Duke and USC, Thornton has a chance to have his most productive season yet.

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He had come close to scoring 20 points many times, but Wednesday was the first time he’s done so in his career. Thornton admitted he might have been a bit too riled up at first, but once he settled into a rhythm, he was the best player on the floor.

“It almost felt unreal just being out there and really having fun playing with my team tonight,” Thornton said. “I haven’t had that much fun playing basketball in a while.”

His first bucket came four and a half minutes in, when he caught a pass from Julian Rishwain and buried a 3 to give the Eagles the lead. He finished high off the glass in the lane, converted at the free-throw line, and had a team-high 10 points at the break.

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Thornton continued to play with poise and pace in the second half, and he didn’t turn the ball over once all night. On one sequence late in the game, Christian was upset with Thornton for committing a foul with his team up in the final seconds.

He nearly subbed Thornton out, but he left him in the game. Moments later, Thornton made sure he was in position, took a charge to help seal the game, and celebrated accordingly.

It was his night, and it likely won’t be the last time he takes over a game for BC.

Jay Heath fueled a strong effort from the freshmen.

Christian noted before the season that Heath would likely see significant minutes and play a key role, and that’s what happened Wednesday as he got the start and made his presence known.

After missing his first two shots, Heath went to the bench and recalibrated. The rest of the night, he only missed two more, hitting seven and providing several acrobatic finishes in traffic.

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“Coach is always telling me don’t let one shot, or another shot get you down,” Heath said.

On one move, he switched from right to left and scooped it up and in, and on another, he converted an up-and-under and flexed as he ran down the court. He played with a significant amount of swagger and self-assuredness for any player, never mind for a freshman playing in his first game.

The stat lines of the other freshmen weren’t quite as juicy, but all three contributed off the bench.

Julian Rishwain played 16 minutes and chipped in 4 points, 3 steals, and 2 assists. Members of the bench stood up whenever it looked like he was going to shoot, but he never forced anything.

He calmly found Thornton and Popovic for jumpers, then he attacked the basket and converted at the free-throw line himself. He missed the lone 3-pointer he took, making it clear he can do much more than shoot.

CJ Felder added 5 points and 5 rebounds in 14-plus minutes, and Kamari Williams – playing in front of his uncle, former No. 2 overall pick Marcus Camby – didn’t attempt a shot in six-plus minutes. Camby had his phone out, waiting for Williams to shoot, but he never did.

Christian noted how difficult it is to play your first collegiate game, adding that it’s even tougher against an ACC opponent.

“I was proud of all of them,” Christian said. “They played with great fire. I thought they played with a lot of enthusiasm, and that’s all we need.”

They won the turnover battle and got out in transition.

The Eagles were 13th in the ACC in steals per game (5.13) and steals to turnovers (0.42) last year.

Wednesday was just one game, but it was a step in the right direction for a team that hopes to establish itself as a versatile and active group defensively.

“We talked about it all year long, all the preseason, that we need to be able create offense from defense,” Christian said. “I thought in the first half we did a really good job of that. Overall, I thought everybody came with the right mindset defensively.”

BC’s ability to value the ball early helped spark an extended 20-3 run midway through the half. Even when their shots weren’t falling, the Eagles were able to stay firmly in front. Then once the shots did fall, they pulled away and took a 42-27 edge into halftime.

The Eagles got several easy buckets, whereas the Demon Deacons had to work for all of theirs. Heath and Thornton, in particular, looked to run, and Steffon Mitchell ignited the offensive in transition as well.

“You have to give them some credit,” Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said. “Obviously for us, we like to think we handle the ball a little better than that. Jim’s teams have always been very, very sound, and they’re always in their right help spots.”

There were a few areas of concern.

It wasn’t all rosy for the Eagles. The Hamilton brothers were both injured, as Jairus landed awkwardly and left in the first half with a lower-body injury and Jared re-aggravated a lower-body injury that’s bothered him the past.

Christian joked that the Hamiltons were taking him out, because they both ran into him when they were injured. He said he wasn’t sure where either player stands going forward as of Wednesday night.

Another downside for the Eagles was their lack of ability to preserve a sizable lead. BC was firmly in front early in the second half, but Wake chipped away and sliced it to 7. Boston College was never in serious danger, but the game got a bit closer than the Eagles would have liked.

On top of that, Wake out-rebounded BC, 45-34, and won the second-chance points battle, 13-6. These were a few concerning developments on a largely productive night for the Eagles.

They found a way to get a league win.

Two ESPN writers picked BC to finish last in the conference, and two more put them second-to-last. The Demon Deacons were a bit higher, coming in 12th three times and 13th once.

Calling this a statement win would be too much, but it was a significant one. Every ACC victory matters a great deal, and the Eagles already have one before they start up non-conference play.

The unusual format of starting out in league play makes life tricky for both teams, but the Eagles skirted around that potential roadblock and moved to 1-0.

“The whole key to the beginning of the season is to not beat yourself,” Christian said.