LANDOVER -- College coaches often talk of the importance of senior leadership.
In the case of Boston College, four seniors -- center Bill Curley and guards Gerrod Abram, Howard Eisley and Malcolm Huckaby -- provided key plays in the closing minutes of their dramatic, 67-64 victory over Washington State in the opening round of the NCAA East Regional yesterday at USAir Arena.
But more significant were three glaring mistakes by Washington State senior point guard Tony Harris in the final 44 seconds that led to the Cougars' loss.
The Cougars seemed headed for a second-round matchup tomorrow with top-seeded North Carolina, leading the Eagles 63-59 with 1:40 left. But then everything began to unravel.
After Huckaby's three-point shot pulled Boston College to within a point with 77 seconds left, Harris tossed up the first of his two air balls.
Curley (23 points, nine rebounds) then put the Eagles ahead 64-63 with 14 seconds left by converting a pass from Eisley into a layup. The Cougars rushed downcourt and Harris drew a foul with eight seconds left. He missed the first free throw, but made the second to tie it at 64.
Now, it was Boston College's turn, and Abram, trying to go one-on-one, appeared to be trapped in the right corner. But Harris fouled Abram, who made two free throws with five seconds left.
That seemed enough time for the Cougars to get off a decent shot. But, soon after crossing half-court, Harris unleashed a wild 40-footer that fell far short of the basket. Eisley grabbed the ball and added an insurance free throw in the final second.
Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson didn't blame Harris for letting this one slip away.
"If not for Tony Harris, we'd be playing in the NIT now and wondering what happened. He put this team on his back this season."
Said Harris: "I wanted to put my team in a position to win, and I didn't."
But many questions needed to be answered about how the Cougars, who led by as many as 12 in the first half, failed in crunch time.
Asked why the Cougars failed to call specific plays in their last few possessions, Sampson said: "We run a flex-type offense to try and free our guards. But when the shot clock is running down, we just let Tony run the plays."
Before facing Boston College, Sampson said the two teams mirrored each other in that both start three guards. But he quickly added, "We don't have a Bill Curley in the middle, and that's a big difference."
Curley's bulk and aggressiveness inside helped the Eagles catch and pass the Cougars with a 14-4 run early in the second half.
"He forced us to change things defensively," said Sampson. "We tried three different guys on him -- Fred Ferguson, Mark Hendrickson and Taveras Mack -- and Curley got them all in foul trouble."
The Eagles (21-10), who trailed 38-28 at halftime, stepped up their defensive pressure in the second half, limiting the Cougars (20-11) to six field goals and 31 percent shooting in the second half.
Freshmen Isaac Fontaine (17 points) and Nathan Erdmann (12 points) kept the Cougars in contention, but in the end, their senior leader, Harris could not finish the job.