Basketball: The Eagles may have landed

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Basketball: The Eagles may have landed

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

CHESTNUT HILL -- After Saturday's 66-63 loss to Duke, Boston College coach Al Skinner looked tired.

He sounded worse.

"The frustrating part for any team is getting over the hump," he said. "We're playing good teams well enough for periods. But it's got to be more extended. We can't afford to make mental mistakes and that's where we are right now. We've got to play 40 minutes and get the job done."

It's starting to look like this season might be one big hump for the 12-10 Eagles. With just seven games left to play, BC's only real shot to enter the 2010 NCAA Tournament is via the automatic bid given to each conference's tournament champion.

No small feat for a current ACC cellar dweller.

Of their remaining contests, just North Carolina and NC State sit below Boston College in the conference standings, and neither should be underestimated. NC State made headlines three weeks ago after a 14-point walloping of a Blue Devils team that BC -- twice -- couldn't beat. And though UNC is having an uncharacteristic down year, the Tar Heels still managed wins over No. 5 Michigan State and No. 13 Ohio State.

Do the Eagles actually have a chance to turn this season around?

Skinner did manage a minute of optimism.

"I still feel that good things can happen this season," he said. "We just have to put things together and do it for an extended period of time. Like I said, when we do that we are a pretty good team."

There is no denying the Eagles have strengths.

Joe Trapani continues to be a workhorse on the court. In his second season in Chestnut Hill, the junior combo forward is BC's leading scorer with a 14.5 ppg average in 29.5 minutes. But it's his willingness to contribute to the team in any possible facet of the game that makes him so valuable.

"Whatever I can do to help the team, whether it's rebounding or scoring I try to do whatever I can, Trapani has said. "If that means doing what I can to help the team on defense or offense, if I need to block shots or get a couple offensive rebounds and put-backs, trying to shoot a good percentage from the foul line I'll do whatever I can.

Reggie Jackson also gives a big lift to the Eagles. Whether Skinner uses him in the starting five or as instant offense and energy off the bench, Jackson's emotional play is at the center of this team's heart.

On Saturday, BC was down 64-60 to Duke with under 20 seconds to play. Jackson dribbled around the top of the key and pulled up for a triple. When that shot went down, putting the Eagles within striking distance of the upset, the sophomore passionately threw up his arms and screamed to get his team, and the Super Fans, roaring back to life.

It was an embodiment of the intensity that's been missing in some of BC's losses.

Such was the case Jan. 16 against Maryland. Skinner was beyond discouraged in the postgame, calling his team's lackluster effort in the 73-57 loss "disturbing," and seemed practically lost as how to resolve the uninspired mentality of his players.

The Eagles elevated their play in the three weeks that followed, yet have only been able to win two out of the last five games. Clearly, effort is just one piece of the puzzle. Playing a full 40 minutes of basketball that is not just dialed-in but clean has proved a bigger problem.

And the struggle has made it hard for Boston College to even think about the Big Dance.

"Right now I can't worry about the postseason because we haven't put ourselves in position to consider that," Skinner said.

No team wants to throw up a white flag. But his later comments might have interesting implications:

"These guys are coming back next year," he said. "As frustrating as this season has been, we're still building towards something. It's not like they are all seniors and heading out the door."

What does it mean when a head coach brings up the idea of a building year after yet another loss? And how much does such a remark overshadow the "good things" that Skinner says can still happen in 2010?

One has to wonder if he is trying to unburden his squad from what might be an unrealistic expectation of success. It sounds like the plan for the Eagles is to fight through the rest of the season but hold off hope for an earnest run at the title for the next year.

At least the future looks bright.

A more experienced retuning team should commit less of the mental mistakes that this season's squad so often trips over, and that's exactly what Skinner will have. Jackson will come back, as will the most oft-used starters; forwards Trapani and Corey Raji, point guard Biko Paris, center Josh Southern, and wing Rakim Sanders. Senior forward Tyler Roche will be the only one missing in 2011 from the current 12-man roster.

But that's next year.

For now, Boston College has enough talent to grab a few more wins and even surprise someone in the ACC tournament. But as for this year's national tournament -- the dancing shoes will probably stay in the closet.

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

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STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

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Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

SAN FRANCISCO - An enraged Bryce Harper charged the mound, fired his helmet and traded punches to the head with San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland after getting hit by a fastball, setting off a wild brawl Monday during the Washington Nationals' 3-0 win over the Giants.

Drilled in the right hip by a 98 mph heater on Strickland's first pitch in the eighth inning with two outs, none on and Washington ahead 2-0, Harper didn't hesitate. The slugger pointed his bat at Strickland, yelled at him and took off.

No one got in Harper's way as he rushed the mound. His eyes were wide as he flung his helmet - it sailed way wide of Strickland, it might've slipped - and they started swinging away. The 6-foot-4 Strickland hit Harper in the face, then they broke apart for a moment before squaring off again. Harper punched Strickland in the head as the benches and bullpen emptied.

Giants teammates Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija collided hard as they tried to get between the two fighters. Three Giants players forcefully dragged Strickland from the middle of the pack all the way into the dugout, while a teammate held back Harper.

Harper and Strickland were both ejected. They have some history between them - in the 2014 NL Division Series, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland, and the All-Star outfielder glared at the reliever as he rounded the bases after the second shot in Game 4.