How BC basketball upset defending national champion Virginia

The Eagles rose to the occasion in the final minutes. 

Boston College's Jared Hamilton celebrates late in the second half of the Eagles' 60-53 win over Virginia on Tuesday.
Boston College's Jared Hamilton celebrates late in the second half of the Eagles' 60-53 win over Virginia on Tuesday. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

The universe seemed to not want Boston College to upset Virginia on Tuesday, but the Eagles didn’t seem to care.

Derryck Thornton sat out with an ankle injury. Nik Popovic missed the game with a back injury. Steffon Mitchell vomited early in the day and almost didn’t play. Head coach Jim Christian defied doctors’ orders by hopping around in a boot all night.

The Eagles were coming off a 39-point loss at Duke, were up against the defending national champions, and were starting three freshmen. BC was 3-31 against ranked opponents under Christian, had lost eight of its last nine to Virginia, and came in as 8.5-point underdogs.

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In the end, none of that mattered, as Boston College (9-6, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) earned a signature, 60-53 win over No. 18 Virginia (11-3, 3-1 ACC) at Conte Forum. Freshman Jay Heath poured in a game-high 17 points, Jared Hamilton added 16, and CJ Felder finished plus-19 in 28 minutes. Heath found Hamilton for a crucial, go-ahead 3-pointer with 38 seconds left that helped the Eagles make a statement on a grand stage.

BC is now 8-15 all-time against the defending national champion. That Duke loss last Tuesday feels like a distant memory, and the Eagles have plenty of momentum as they head into a home game with Georgia Tech on Saturday at 6 p.m.

The celebrations that ensued following the win over Virginia – with Heath floating in space like he was in a slam dunk contest, Mitchell and Luka Kraljevic converging in mid-air, and Jared and Jairus Hamilton simply hoisting their hands to the roof – made it clear how much this one meant. Christian acknowledged the gravity of the win, but he also made it clear it was just one game.

Though those on the outside might have been surprised by the result, the Eagles, according to Christian, expected as much from themselves.

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“It’s a great momentum builder for this team,” Christian said. “We were excited in the locker room we won the game, but these guys aren’t surprised they won this basketball game.”

Here’s how the Eagles pulled off the upset:

They rose to the occasion in the final minutes. 

Virginia guard Kihei Clark is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. He was instrumental in the Cavaliers’ run to the title last year, and he has a knack for embodying a pit bull and shutting down the opposing team’s best playmaker.

Heath understood that, but he also understood he was getting into the lane the whole game. With the score tied with under a minute remaining, Heath penetrated and drew two defenders.

Rather than forcing a shot, he froze in mid-air and found Jared Hamilton in the corner. Hamilton elevated, stuck the 3, and collapsed into the BC bench to celebrate.

“I saw the play developing, and I just wanted to make sure I made myself available if he needed me,” Hamilton said. “I knew he was killing all night, making great moves getting to the lane. I just wanted to find a window and be ready if it came my way, no conscience, have all the confidence in the world. We’ve put a lot of work in. Trust the work.”

Most back-and-forth, tight games have a signature moment, and this was that moment. Mitchell then grabbed a rebound and hit two clutch free throws to make it 58-53, and Hamilton added two more after another key stop to cement the win.

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There was no panic from the Eagles when Virginia used a 20-3 run to turn a 42-30 deficit into a 50-45 lead with 5:25 remaining. Instead, they regrouped and responded with a 15-3 flurry of their own to close the game.

“When we got down five, I thought we showed a lot of character, a lot of courage,” Christian said.

Steffon Mitchell made many winning plays.

Christian didn’t know until five minutes before the game whether Mitchell would be able to play. He knew if Mitchell could play, he would, but Christian was preparing for life without his most versatile contributor.

“Our medical staff did a great job getting him an IV and getting him hydrated enough to play,” Christian said. “That’s who Steff is. You can’t say enough about him.”

Mitchell, who had flu-like symptoms, finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, and two steals. He only attempted five shots from the field, but he shaped the outcome the entire way.

Early on, he gave Julian Rishwain a slight nudge to the proper spot in the zone. Midway through the second half, he swatted a Clark shot in transition to prevent what appeared to be an easy bucket. Later in the game, he brought the ball up as a point-forward. He took a key charge that fouled Jay Huff out, and he corralled the biggest rebound of the night in the final seconds.

“He brings such heart,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “He plays so hard, and I think we can learn from that.”

Jay Heath was electric all night.

The feed to Hamilton was the lasting image, but it was far from Heath’s only contribution. He dazzled with the ball in his hands, constantly looking to attack and staying poised despite UVA’s suffocating defense.

Heath got the start at point guard in Thornton’s absence, and he played 38 minutes, 29 seconds. He finished 6-for-8 from the field, 3-for-5 from 3, and 2-for-3 from the line. Perhaps the most impressive part was that he only turned the ball over once with Clark harassing him.

He scored to put BC ahead, 52-51, with 2:18 left, and he could have easily forced a shot when he Virginia collapsed on him in the final minute. Instead, he made the right play and found Hamilton, who took care of the rest.

“Jay’s a phenomenal teammate,” Hamilton said. “Especially at a young age, he’s more mature than his years. He’s always excited for guys, even if he’s not involved in the play. That type of energy is contagious, and it spreads throughout the whole team.”

They didn’t let Virginia’s pace bog the game down.

When playing Virginia, it can be easy to succumb to the Cavaliers’ style and abandon basketball fundamentals entirely.

The Eagles avoided that trap. They only turned the ball over 10 times, which is an ideal number considering their turnover woes at various points this season. Virginia is known for playing at its own pace, but BC didn’t let that methodical nature fluster it.

Though the game was choppy, it never got messy, and that was largely because of the way BC defended and prevented UVA from getting into a rhythm offensively.

“They’ve improved defensively this year with their intensity, their switching ball screens and forcing some action,” Bennett said of BC. “That was a game where you had to make some plays off the dribble and be able to finish at the rim, and we had some trouble with that, for sure.”

Virginia gets a lot of credit for its defense – and deservedly so – but the Cavaliers are also extremely effective offensively when they’re playing at their peak. On Tuesday, UVA shot just 32.7 percent from the field, 18.8 percent from 3, and only had five players score.

“They’re the national champs, so going into the game, we know we’ve got to communicate defensive-wise,” Heath said.

This game was a stark contrast from the Duke game, where the Eagles let the damage escalate early and fell behind 45-19 at halftime. BC was in control the majority of the way against UVA, and even when the Cavaliers pulled ahead in the second half, it never felt like BC would let it slip away.

The Eagles shot 44.7 percent from the field, including 47.6 percent in the second half. They put themselves in position and found a way late.

“We just didn’t play well (against Duke), and it never stopped,” Christian said. “Tonight, whether we won or lost this game, we improved tonight. We played really, really well.”

They want to prove this wasn’t a fluke.

When Christian made it clear the Eagles expected to win this game, Heath and Hamilton nodded in agreement. They firmly believe that when they execute the way they’re capable of, they can beat anyone.

This was a monster win, but it was just one win. As Christian noted, the Eagles have 16 more regular-season ACC games, and a lot can happen during that span. Tuesday’s win wasn’t a panacea, but it was certainly a stepping stone, and the shorthanded Eagles proved they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

This was right up there with road win over Notre Dame in early December in terms of importance and magnitude. If BC can do this without two of its best players, and with one of its other key weapons battling sickness, it’s clear the Eagles are capable of turning some heads in the ACC.

“It’s not a fluke,” Christian said. “We’re pretty good when we play right. When we don’t play right, we’re pretty bad. It’s not rocket science. Now we’re starting to gain confidence, and that’s great.”

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