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Bob Ryan

Eagles elevate their game in opener

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 13, 2009
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ATLANTA - It's Year 4 in this Atlantic Coast Conference existence for Boston College, and you've got to admit the Eagles are pretty comfortable down here.

At least they've accomplished almost as much in those four years as Clemson has in 56.

BC has yet to win an ACC tournament championship, but neither has Clemson. Each team has been to the championship game once, but 1 in 4 is a wee bit better than 1 in 56.

And in the simple matter of getting out of the first round, BC is now 4 for 4 following last night's 76-63 triumph over Virginia. Clemson? We'll get to that.

"It's a real good thing we're playing the way we are right now," said coach Al Skinner. "The thing I like is that guys are holding each other accountable for good things and bad things."

There wasn't much bad, to the layman's eye, anyway, in this one. The Eagles were in pretty firm control from the time Corey Raji's conventional 3-point play gave them a 3-2 lead at the 18:09 mark of the first half. They were having no trouble getting the ball inside, finishing the half with nine layups en route to a 37-25 lead, a margin all the more impressive because it was accomplished without much direct offensive help from Tyrese Rice or Joe Trapani, who each finished the half with 2 points.

This turned out to be a Rakim Sanders night, which is no shock. The sophomore guard had 25, nicely divided by halves (13-12). It also turned out to be a Josh Southern night, and that's something no one would have predicted. But the 6-foot-10-inch sophomore from Saginaw, Mich., was a real force inside, scoring 13 points and grabbing nine rebounds in one of his sharpest performances in a BC uniform. Of course, it helped that he didn't commit his second foul until 5:55 remained and BC was up by 13 (59-46). The BC folk have always felt that fouling (a whopping one personal for every seven minutes played) has been a major detriment to his career progression.

"What he did tonight was demand the basketball," said Skinner. "We've been waiting a good portion of this season for him to bring that type of attitude."

BC will need that type of tough-guy attitude this evening when it attempts to defeat second-seeded Duke for a second time this season. But at least the Eagles have that opportunity.

Which brings us to the fact that in addition to Death and Taxes, a third life certainty can be added: Clemson exiting promptly in the ACC tourney.

This is the 56th year of the ACC tourney, and Clemson, a league charter member, is 0 for 56 in championships and 1 for 56 in championship game appearances (1962). But what may be even more amazing is in all that time, Clemson has won its first game just six times.

The opponent this time was Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets won but two games in the conference, but they have been something of a tough out lately, as BC would attest. The Eagles needed a clutch basket by Sanders with 1.7 seconds remaining last Saturday to pull out a 67-66 triumph on their home floor.

But come on. Clemson entered with a 23-7 record and a top-20 ranking in both major polls. The Tigers are just flat-out better than Georgia Tech, correct? Apparently not. Tech stared them down and knocked them out of the tournament in the first round for the 50th time in 56 years with an 86-81 victory.

Though the game was played in the Georgia Dome, from which the Tech campus can be plainly seen, this was not a case of a team being inspired by a raucous partisan crowd. The Tech contingent didn't make any more noise than anyone else's. No, they won this on their own, breaking away from a 39-39 halftime situation by scoring the first 7 points of the half, then going into a maintenance mode behind the stellar play of senior Lewis Clinch, who was playing, among other reasons, to extend his career at least one more day.

The Yellow Jackets came out of this game with a 12-18 record, so unless they're planning on pulling off the miracle of miracles and winning four games here in four days, their season will be over whenever they lose. But Mr. Clinch had apparently determined he wasn't done, never mind what anyone else was thinking. Clinch had 32 in a majestic performance.

As for the fallen Tigers, one well-seasoned ACC observer summed it up in a very succinct manner. "That's why they're Clemson," he pointed out.

Maryland, likewise, is Maryland, a typically scrappy Gary Williams team that fought its way into a quarterfinal showdown with Wake Forest by seizing control of a tight game with a strong final three minutes in a 74-69 conquest of North Carolina State.

There was little suspense in the day's opening game, a battle between a pair of teams still thinking an NCAA Tournament invitation was within reach. But only one team seemed to have a sense of urgency in this matter, and that team was Virginia Tech, which jumped on Miami early and wound up executing a wire-to-wire 65-47 dispatch of the Hurricanes.

It was a shocking display of Miami offensive ineptitude, with not one player reaching double figures. That list included Jack McClinton, a two-time first-team All-ACC selection. This is a kid who hit Duke and North Carolina for 34 and 35 in back-to-back games. He will get to play again, if only in the NIT, but he won't soon forget this sorry afternoon at the Georgia Dome.

Virginia Tech is still a long-shot NCAA pick, but the Hokies could get themselves into the conversation by defeating North Carolina today. Impossible? Well, Ty Lawson is doubtful, and Carolina is a different team without him. And the Heels may not be greatly motivated. It's not a ridiculous notion if Virginia Tech brings its A game. I'm just sayin'.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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