CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — The Boston College Eagles will have plenty more opportunities to face top-notch ACC teams like the UNC team they lost to on Sunday, but couldn’t look ahead to that on Tuesday.
Coming off a three-point loss to the Tar Heels, the Eagles really needed to beat the Sacred Heart Pioneers at Conte Forum to keep their high NET ranking (No. 46) intact so that they could dwell on the positives while celebrating Christmas and build energy leading up to a Dec. 30 game at No. 3 Louisville.
Hungry to dominate. BC came out with an 11-0 run to start the game and went on to receive outstandingly efficient performances from senior star Taylor Soule (22 points) and freshman Maria Gakdeng (career-high 17 points, six rebounds, four assists, three blocks) en route to a 69.2 team field goal percentage and a 97-68 win.
“I think it’s always good to get a win going into break,” Soule said. “Definitely would feel a little nicer with two wins. But you just gotta learn from that and bounce back. And I think today was a game where everyone was scoring, but it also helped us to individually and collectively improve on things that we want to work on no matter what the score is.”
Soule scored 12 points in the first 4:07 of the contest on six layups — all but one easy — as BC opened up a 19-2 lead. Her defense on Sacred Heart was suffocating and one of the layups came off a stolen inbound pass turned fast break.
“I think we understood where we had strengths,” Soule said of getting so many easy looks early on. “Running the ball in our offensive transition was a place we knew we could execute well. My point guards did a great job at having a head up and seeing me running the floor. And I think just (me) trying to be aggressive. Wasn’t as offensively aggressive in the last game. So I think today was a good confidence boost.”
Soule would be subbed out with 4:13 to go in the first as BC head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee focused on expanding her rotation in this game to get some players experience. Soule could have put up quite the scoring total. Ultimately she made her first seven field goals and finished 8-of-9 from the field in 23 minutes. BC led by as many as 21 in the first before coming back down to earth in a second quarter it won by just four and a third quarter it won by just one. The Eagles were in danger of not winning the fourth by much, but finished the game on a strong 10-4 run to inflate the final score.
Gakdeng, a 6-foot-3 forward/center who has been a starter since BC’s opener despite the team returning 2020-21 starting center and senior Clara Ford, has been a solid defender (1.6 blocks per game) and inside presence all season and was a perfect 7-of-7 from the line on Tuesday. She, like Soule, was a huge factor in the win.
“It’s kind of exhilarating,” Gakdeng said of her career high. “I just knew going into this game that I really wanted this win and I was willing to do whatever for my team, whether I didn’t score as much or (was) contributing a lot. It was a great team win and I just happened to be a big part of that.”
“I think she’s just getting better each game, getting better each practice,” Bernabei-McNamee said of Gakdeng. “But what’s most impressive about Maria is that she allows me to coach her. ... She knows she’s a really important facet to what we do and how much she’s needed. And I thought the UNC game was really light-bulb moment for her to really see ‘ok this is what ACC play is and I’m ready for it.’”
Starting point guard Marnelle Garraud was key player for BC as well and was chasing her career high of 10 assists before falling just short at nine, which tied a season high. She tossed in a 3-pointer as part of her 10 points and also grabbed four steals.
Cameron Swartz, who has been red-hot lately, was good for 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field, while Ford notched 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting and freshman Ally VanTimmeren added eight on 4-of-6 shooting. Back-up point guard Kaylah Ivey dished out five assists while playing one minute less than her season high of 20. Last year, Ivey averaged 18.5 minutes per game, but she has seen a few single-digit-minute outings this season.
With BC (8-3, 0-1 ACC) dominating paint points 60-26, the Pioneers (3-4, 0-0 NEC) were forced to rely on the three ball and did OK: 10-of-27. Olivia Tucker led the way with three treys and 13 points. The Pioneers’ leading scorer, Sonia Smith, was held to seven points (8.3 below her season average entering the game), but dished out seven assists. Nikki Johnson joined Tucker as a Sacred Heart player with multiple threes (two) and finished with eight points, three helpers and two steals. Tucker recorded a game-high four steals.
BC did well at the free throw line (23-of-29), attempting 21 more shots than the Pioneers and making 19 more. Soule was 6-of-6 at the stripe.
The Eagles lost both the turnover and offensive-rebound margins by four, but made the most of the possessions they did have with their incredible field goal percentage.