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The Three-Pointer: BC Edges UMass

12.24.09 at 8:57 am ET
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It was a defensive struggle early on for both teams, as Boston College headed into halftime holding only a 26-25 lead over visiting UMass. But in the end, the Eagles’ offensive athleticism proved too much for the Minutemen, and BC grabbed a 79-67 win Wednesday night.

In the beginning, the Eagles could hardly get out of their own way, with clunked 3-pointers and sloppy turnovers leading to a very low-scoring output in the first half. But a stingy defense held UMass to a similar result, making the recipe for victory all the simpler in the second half — score and win.

Boston College did just that, thanks in large part to junior Corey Raji, who scored all of his team-leading 18 points in the second half after shooting 0-for-5 from the field in the first. Much like teammate and fellow junior Rakim Sanders did in the first half, Raji was able to slice inside and take advantage of the smaller sized and overmatched UMass guards time and time again.

With the Eagles’ lead creeping into double digits midway through the second, UMass made one final rush at the Eagles, getting to within six at 63-57 with just over three minutes remaining. But Rakim Sanders nailed a 3-pointer that silenced the Minutemen and any hope of a late rally, carrying BC to the win.

Here’s what we learned from the BC victory:

SANDERS IS ALMOST THERE

When BC team leader Tyrese Rice graduated after last season, many turned their heads to Sanders to pick up the scoring slack in Rice’s absence. However, after being injured for the majority of the beginning of the season, Sanders has been unable to really assert himself on the court.

But it appears Sanders may finally be getting his sea legs back.

“It feels good,” Sanders said. “Just trying to get back into the best shape — I do [feel more comfortable].”

Early in the game, when Boston College struggled to get any semblance of an offense going, it was Sanders who took control. The 6-foot-5, 228-pound forward was able to use his size to his advantage, bullying UMass down low early and often. At the end of the first half, Sanders led the Eagles with nine points, two rebounds and three assists, showing signs of life that the Eagles’ most talented offensive player may finally be getting back to full strength.

This is crucial for the Eagles down the stretch, as it’s no secret what a matchup problem Sanders presents to opposing defenses. He’s a big guard who can move well and has the ability to shoot effectively both inside and outside. He hasn’t been able to put it together yet this season because of the injury, but entering the weeklong holiday break, the Eagles might finally be on the verge of seeing what Sanders is capable of.

‘TIS THE SEASON FOR GIVING

Even with the Eagles struggling to convert on open shots early in the game, coach Al Skinner remained calm about the offense. Skinner attributed that calmness to a faith in the system, knowing that though the Eagles were clanging shots left and right, they were coming off open looks — and they’d fall in eventually.

Fortunately for the Eagles, that rang true, and all of those good looks were made possible by great off-the-dribble recognition, specifically by guards Reggie Jackson and Sanders, who had a combined 13 assists between them. On the night, BC finished with 22 total assists on 30 baskets, a ratio that Skinner was very pleased with after the final buzzer sounded.

“We’re not a one-on-one team,” Skinner said. “I like to see the ball moving, I like to see guys share the basketball. I think you get better looks, and with the number of assists to baskets and the least number of turnovers just shows where we our with recognition on our part.”

Ball movement played a vital role in the victory, as the Minutemen came out of the half pressing – both literally and figuratively. Trailing BC at the half, UMass decided to go with a full-court press to steal back the lead, and just like they did against Providence, the Eagles were able to exploit it — finding Corey Raji multiple times under the basket for easy lay-ins.

AT TIMES, RAJI IS UNSTOPPABLE

With points somewhat at a premium throughout the first half, BC called on Raji to lend a hand in the second. After going 0-for-5 in the first 20 minutes of play, Raji exploded in the second half, slicing to the basket and torching UMass for 18 points.

It was the play of No. 11 that led the Eagles, who once again saw their shooting from 3-point range be at a less-than-stellar percentage, sitting at 35 percent after the final whistle.

Raji’s second-half dominance comes as no surprise to the Eagles, who have seen him lead the team in scoring since the first game, posting 15.4 points a game heading into Wednesday night. It was especially crucial Wednesday night not only due to the Eagles’ low scoring output in the first half, but also because of the size matchup down low. Raji was presented with a tremendous matchup against smaller UMass players and took full advantage in the second half, much like fellow junior Sanders did in the first.

“I was just telling him, ‘Keep focused, keep going,’ ” Sanders said of Raji. “He’s always hungry. He’s always trying to find a way to score, whether it’s offensive rebounds or anything.”

Raji also was able to take advantage of the UMass press, consistently finding openings under the basket and converting on numerous fast-break lay-ins.

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