Looking Back... Boston College's 1994 Tournament Run
March 19, 2009
You've probably been hearing a lot from the pundits about momentum. Big Mo. Arrow pointing up. The teams going into the Big Dance on a roll are the teams most likely to stick around for awhile. Maybe that's a common-sense rule. But rules have exceptions. The 1994 Boston College Eagles are Exhibit A.
It's not likely any of our pundits would have picked the `94 Eagles to go deep into the tournament. Boston College lost two of its final three regular-season game to finish third at 11-7 in the Big East. But Georgetown plastered BC 81-58 in the opening round of the conference tournament.
Boston College squeezed into the NCAAs as a nine-seed in the East Region with the momentum arrow definitely pointing down. But BC had talent, resilience and experience, a perfect recipe for turning a losing streak into a winning streak.
About that experience, Boston College started a quartet of seniors; center Bill Curley, small forward Gerrod Abram, and guards Malcolm Huckaby and Howard Eisley. Curley remembers the negativity following the Georgetown loss, "Suddenly we were the worst team ever. But you don't listen to what people are saying about you. You shut the doors, pull down the blinds and focus on what you have to do."
Curley was the most highly recruited of the four, a Boston native who loved the family feel of the home-town school and thought, "there was no reason why we couldn't build a champion at Boston College."
BC went 8-20 when these guys were high-school seniors, so this was something of a leap of faith. But BC got better, winning 11, 17 and 18 games and going to the NIT in 1992 and 1993.
Huckaby says, "Making the NCAA was the goal going into the season and then staying around as long as possible. The Georgetown game was a bad one but we started over in the NCAAs."
It was almost short trip. Boston College opened against Washington State in Landover, Maryland. Eisley says, "It was our first time in the NCAAs and we were a little nervous, a little antsy." It showed. BC couldn't buy a basket early, shooting 36% in the first half. They trailed 38-28 at intermission.
Eisley remembers, "It was unspoken but we knew that our next loss would be our last. Seniors have that sense of urgency." Huckaby agrees, "Washington State might have been our toughest opponent. But we had been through so much together. Being together for four years really paid off."
Freshman forward Danya Abrams, the only non-senior starter, adds, "We had great senior leadership. You could see it in their eyes. They were not going to let the season end."
Boston College fought back. Abram broke a tie with a pair of foul shots with five seconds left and BC held on 67-64. Curley led everyone with 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Eisley added 17 points and 7 assists.
The reward for the school's first NCAA Tournament win since 1985 was a second-round match-up against North Carolina. The Tar Heels were the defending NCAA champions and were the top seed in the tournament. Mission impossible? That seemed to be the feeling. Curley recalls a press conference the day before the game in which the BC seniors were asked how it felt to prepare for a game they had no chance to win, "We just laughed. But as a competitor, that's a slap in the face. It definitely helped us focus."
Boston College thought they had some advantages going in. Abrams says the Big East grind had prepared his team, "They put their jerseys on the same way we did. You can't get caught up in the hoopla. We knew we had as many tough games as anyone."
Boston College coach Jim O'Brien had devised a plan to take advantage of the quickness of his three-guard lineup. Huckaby maintains, "We wanted them to trap us because that would over-extend their defense. Then we could hit the open man and force them to match-up with our speed."
Eisley adds, "We were able to get out and run early. We got some easy baskets and forced them to play catch-up. We controlled the tempo. On the defensive end, we switched defenses a lot. I think that confused them."
Boston College hit its threes, limited its turnovers and led 42-34 at the intermission, closing out the half with consecutive threes by Eisley and Abram. A three-pointer by Huckaby made it 50-36, with 17:33 left. The margin was ten a minute later, when Abrams made a bad pass that was picked off by North Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps, who raced to the BC basket.
Abrams remembers, "I was taught that when you make a turnover, you always hustle back and don't give up an easy lay-up. I gave a hard foul but wasn't trying to hurt anyone. I probably should have just grabbed him and taken the intentional foul. I'm sorry it ever happened." Phelps landed awkwardly, hit his head hard on the floor, and suffered a concussion that ended his game. Abram's teammates defend him. Huckaby says, "He wasn't a dirty player. It wasn't an uncommon foul; it just had a bad ending."
The hard foul may have woken up the slumbering Tar Heels. Or maybe, as Eisley says, "They were a really good team. We knew they were going to make a run and we would have to execute our offense and defense." The run came, a 13-3 one at that. The game was tied.
Curley remembers the game, "getting chippy, some pretty good shots, elbows flying. It got a little nasty. But basketball is a contact sport and the Big East had prepared us for that level of physicality."
North Carolina's Brian Reese was called for a flagrant foul. Curley and his UNC counterpart Eric Montross squared off after Montross was whistled for delivering an elbow to Curley's head. Freshman Jeff McInnis, Phelps' replacement, was the only Tar Heel who could hit from outside. He and Montross led a comeback. North Carolina tied the score four times, the last at 72 on two Montross free-throws with 1:01 left.
BC held on. Curley made two foul shots, Abram one, sandwiched around a defensive stop. Down 75-72, North Carolina had a final chance to send the game into overtime. Eisley says at that point, "Our speed advantage definitely paid off. We denied the ball to their guards. They ran out of time."
Freshman Rasheed Wallace forced a desperation three-pointer as time expired. It missed. That miss summed up the game. Boston College made 12-31 from three-point range, North Carolina only 4-17. Abram led BC with 21 points but all five starters scored in double figures. Montross led North Carolina with 16.
Abrams recalls "flying back to Logan and being greeted by a crowd, an escort back to campus, a huge celebration." They made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
It would have been easy for Boston College to get full of themselves. But O'Brien wouldn't allow it, the seniors wouldn't allow it. Curley says "this was our first real taste of success. We got greedy and wanted more of it."
There would be no letdown. Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers were next, in Miami. O'Brien had a veteran staff and they prepared their team for Knight's motion offense.
Eisley says, "They tried to run you through screen after screen. But Malcolm, Gerrod and I were about the same size and had played together a long time. So, we could switch without creating a mismatch or fight through a screen without creating a mismatch."
Huckaby adds, "Motion, motion, motion-a tough team. But their guards weren't blazing quick and we thought we could exploit that. Don't switch on screens, don't give them open looks. Our experience made it easier."
Each team had several runs in a first-half that ended with Boston College up 40-38. The Hoosiers led 64-59 with just under seven minutes left when the Boston College defense took control. Curley says that Huckaby's defense on Indiana star Damon Bailey was the key, "I can't begin to tell you how good a defender he was. I thought he was as good as anybody. He wouldn't let Bailey breath."
Abrams cut the lead to three and Eisley tied it at 64 with a 20-footer. Indiana held Curley down most of the game but the 6'9" lefty scored six of his eleven points down the stretch, including two foul shots that gave his team the lead in the final two minutes.
Boston College pulled away, winning 77-68, closing with an 18-4 run. Eisley led Boston College with 18 points, including 4-6 on threes. Curley grabbed 13 rebounds, helping his team to a 38-30 advantage on the boards.
Following the game Knight tipped his hat to O'Brien, "Not too many people can put kids together and get maximum effort out of them and keep getting it. They won't forget what he has taught them."
Florida upset second-seeded Connecticut in the other semifinal. Given that the Huskies were riding a thirteen-game winning streak against Boston College, it might seem that they had done the Eagles a favor. But Boston College had what Curley calls "unfinished business" with Connecticut, "We felt like we owed them one." The seniors wouldn't get their chance.
But the lure of the Big Dance more than compensated for the absence of Connecticut. "Our disappointment didn't last long," says Curley. "We were one game from the Final Four. There was no way we were looking past Florida."
Florida was a football school but they had a pretty good basketball team and a sizeable home-court advantage playing in Miami. They also were as hungry as Boston College. Like the Eagles, Florida was a veteran squad playing for its first trip to the Final Four. Florida led 35-33 at the half. Boston College's biggest lead came at 51-45, with about 11 minutes left.
But BC started missing the open jumpers that they had been making for two weeks. The Eagles didn't have much of a bench and the starters logged major minutes. Huckaby says, "Possibly, we ran out of gas," while Curley notes that, "realistically, it probably was a factor. A little bit here, a little bit there. But you play in the moment and you don't want to come out. I don't remember being tired at the time."
Craig Brown provided a big offensive lift for the Gators, making a trio of contested three-pointers that turned a 56-53 BC lead into a 62-56 Gator advantage with 3:50 left. But the biggest play came with Florida up by five and 2:30 left. Eisley stole the ball and was driving for an apparent uncontested lay-up when Florida's 6'10" Andrew DeClercq closed and got the block.
Curley says, "Things went downhill after that." With a minute left, DeClercq forced Curley into a charge, when Curley says, "I went left once too often."
Florida closed out the game 74-66. Curley led Boston College with 20 points, one more than Eisley. But BC shot only 4-14 on 3s and lost the rebounding battle 38-29. Florida made only five three-pointers themselves, all by Brown, who led everyone with 21 points.
Huckaby calls this, "a frustrating, frustrating loss. We didn't shoot the ball well. But give Florida credit. They played well. Brown hit some tough shots."
Eisley agrees, "It could have been different. But they made the plays down the stretch and we didn't. At the end of the day, they deserved to win."
That was 15 years ago. Eisley and Curley played in the NBA, Abrams just retired after playing a dozen years in Europe. But they haven't forgotten that special March. Huckaby speaks for the team when he recalls, "It happened so fast. That run meant everything to me. I tell the story to my kids. I feel really blessed."
Curley adds, "That took us from the outhouse to the main house. We had a team where everyone knew their roles, where everyone was willing to do what needed to be done. The neatest thing was turning the negatives into positives and that's a memory I'll have a long time."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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