Boston College men’s basketball sophomore center Justin Vander Baan subbed in during the second half against Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon. Unlike the teams’ Jan. 8 meeting, however, the 7-footer wasn’t checking in to fill the void left by the foul-troubled pairing of James Karnik and Quinten Post.
This time, Vander Baan was part of the cleanup crew. He was joined by a collection of reserves and walk-ons as the Eagles clinched a decisive 69-56 victory.
The two games BC (9-11, 4-6 ACC) and Pitt (8-13, 3-7) played this season were vastly different. But the reason behind that contrast wasn’t complicated, BC guard DeMarr Langford Jr. explained.
“I think really just trying to gang rebound and gang box out [John Hugley],” Langford said, when describing the Eagles’ mindset Sunday. “He was the main problem last game. … So he was at the top of the scouting report. And he was the main guy we really had to shut down.
“And that was really it.”
Just as BC took North Carolina forward Armando Bacot out of Wednesday’s game in Chapel Hill, the Eagles eliminated the threat of Hugley, Pitt’s leading scorer and rebounder. Hugley—who turned in a monstrous, 32-and-13 double-double in the Panthers’ win over BC three weeks ago—was limited to just nine points on 3-of-10 shooting in Conte Forum.
The Eagles often pushed Hugley out of the interior and made him take outside shots. It was a blueprint they used to defend a Pitt team that came in scoring 64% of its points in the paint or at the free throw line. When all was said and done, the Panthers finished with a combined 39 points in those categories.
They had their most success in the early going. Following a 26-minute tipoff delay—because Pitt’s team plane arrived late for the game that was already postponed a day due to Boston’s bomb cyclone blizzard—the Panthers staked themselves to a 13-5 lead and started 6-of-11 from the field.
That was without their head coach Jeff Capel, who didn’t travel with the team because of COVID-19 protocols. After that, though, Pitt closed the half 2-of-17.
BC answered an 11-1 Panthers run with a 9-1 stretch that started with a Gianni Thompson jumper and featured five points from Makai Ashton-Langford, who bounced back from his worst outing of the ACC slate with 21 points and a trio of 3-pointers Sunday.
Ashton-Langford was still dealing with some upper back/neck soreness from hitting the deck hard for a loose ball at Wake Forest last week, but the pain didn’t curtail his performance. He and his brother teamed up for 38 points. For Langford, it was his first time in double figures since Dec. 13 against Albany.
“Boo (Langford), definitely, he’s the engine for the team,” Ashton-Langford said. “Once he starts to get going, once he starts smiling and being energized, I feel like that’s when we are really at our best.”
The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard played with a fire in his eyes against Pitt. He was aggressive, inside and out. Langford poured in 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting, which included his fourth triple of the season.
The Worcester native broke a 19-19 tie with seven consecutive points. Pitt didn’t register a field goal for the final 10:07 of the opening frame as the Eagles continued to build their lead. It was an admirable job by BC’s defense, which recorded four steals and a pair of blocks in the period.
Center Quinten Post rounded out the half with seven points, six rebounds and an assist off the bench, and the Eagles took a 31-22 advantage into intermission.
Pitt scored the first four points of the second half, courtesy of two Hugley free throws and a Jamarius Burton layup, except then BC strung together a 23-6 run. The only points scored by the Panthers amid that stretch were two 3-pointers from Ithiel Horton, a junior guard who had missed all but one game this season prior to Sunday because of off-the-court issues.
Langford turned a deflection into a transition layup. Jaeden Zackery cashed in a 3-pointer from the right wing after the Eagles worked the ball around the perimeter. TJ Bickerstaff—a 66.1% free throw shooter before Sunday—went 2-of-2 at the line. And Ashton-Langford got a layup to go out of an inbound pass.
BC, which had its worst single-game shooting performance against an ACC opponent all-time last week at Wake Forest, was clicking offensively against Pitt. The Eagles shot 50% from the floor in the second half and, notably, 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.
First-year head coach Earl Grant’s team was up, 54-32, in the back half of the second period when Pitt struck with seven consecutive points. It made a dent in the Panthers’ deficit, but that’s it.
Ashton-Langford made three jumpers down the stretch: two were 3-pointers, the other was a spinning heave just inside the arc that beat the shot clock and somehow fell. Zackery iced the game with his second triple.
It was the second masterful BC defensive outing in a row. This time, because of shot making, it resulted in a resounding win.
“I thought we played about 35-36 minutes of really hardcore defense where guys were trying to contest shots and trying to box out, fighting for loose balls,” Grant said.
He later added: “I really felt strongly about their efforts last Wednesday up in North Carolina. And I think the guys noticed, too, that, hey, if we lock in mentally, we can be a really good defensive team.”
Not only that, but a defensive team that can erase an opponent’s best offensive weapon.