NEWTON, Mass. -- Just when it seemed the game was getting away from them, facing a double-digit deficit against the conference’s top defensive team in Virginia, the Eagles refused to let it.
The hosts battled back, got within four on a Patrick Heckmann 3-pointer, then fell behind again. But they just wouldn’t quit.
They couldn’t -- they were playing for something bigger than the win.
Longtime Boston College media man Dick Kelley, who is battling ALS, was presented with the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Most Courageous award prior to the game. The team stood arrayed behind Kelley at half court as he received his trophy and posed for pictures, then gave him pats on the shoulder and hugs before jogging back to the bench.
A couple of hours later, after the Eagles pulled off an improbably 53-52 win, they talked about what that moment meant to them.
“It meant everything,” Joe Rahon said. “We talked about it before the game, that [Kelley] was getting honored tonight. Coach told us, he loves us. He loves us more than anyone here. So we didn’t have to go out there and win for him, but we were going to come out and play as hard as we possibly could for him today.”
So down eight with just less than five minutes to go, the Eagles didn’t panic. Ryan Anderson made a layup, Rahon hit a pair of free throws and Heckmann hit another from long range, off a handoff from Eddie Odio.
This time they were back in it to stay.
The score seesawed as the clock ticked down toward the final buzzer. With the Eagles down by 1 with less than 40 seconds to go, a rebound just eluded Anderson and as he tumbled to the ground, Virginia's Jontel Evans was able to edge him out for the bouncing bauble and the officials awarded Evans a timeout even though the ball seemed to be tied up.
That meant the Eagles would have to foul, and when Joe Harris caught the inbounds pass it seemed the controversial call might haunt BC. But Harris, fresh off an ACC-best 36-point output in the Cavs’ home upset of No. 3 Duke, hit only one of two free throws and gave the Eagles one last chance.
To convert on that final opportunity, down 52-50 with 20.6 seconds to go, would require a great deal of patience and trust.
The ball came inbounds and was worked around to Heckmann, who had hit several big shots to bring BC back to within punching distance. He came roaring off a pick and drove down the right side of the lane.
This is where the trust factor comes in.
“When Patrick did drive that ball, I think last year I probably would’ve called timeout because I would’ve said ‘I just don’t trust him,’” BC coach Steve Donahue said. “But I sensed like Joe did that, ‘You know what, I think he knows what he’s doing here. ‘”
The Eagles were running a play they practice every day, an “Alley drive skip pass,” and Rahon said he knew Heckmann would be OK.
“I had confidence in him,” he said. “I knew he’d find me.”
Heckmann drew the defense, executed a perfect jump stop, picked his head up and spotted Rahon open behind the arc. Rahon’s shot was true, swishing through the net as the referees’ whistles blew for a foul that could make it a four-point play.
The crowd exploded. The Eagles had come all the way back, against the ACC’s top defense (Virginia came in allowing just 57.7 points per game), and had a lead with 8.2 to go.
And even though Rahon’s free throw clanged off the rim, Heckmann was able to ride Evans out of bounds on the Cavs’ baseline without fouling and the Eagles escaped with a wild win on an emotional day in the Heights.
“I’m not sure how it all happened but I just appreciate these guys and their perseverance for such a young group,” Donahue said. “We had every reason to pack up our tents there when [the Cavaliers] went up 10.”
But the Eagles never quit, never stopped pushing and eventually prevailed in the pulse-pounding finish. How riveting were the closing moments of Sunday’s game? After Evans turned the ball over with 0.4 seconds to go, Rahon inbounded the ball to half court. Akil Mitchell caught the ball, the buzzer sounded and the big man let it fly.
The ball found nothing but net, and a stunned Mitchell (who scored a game-high 16) tumbled to the floor in disbelief.
“This game was for Dick Kelley and the stuff he’s done,” Donahue said. “What we’re doing is just kind of fun and games. I think all these guys are close to Dick. And if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down fighting in his honor for sure.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.