CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- One shot can save a season, or at least redirect a campaign that has the potential to go awry. One shot ultimately can be the difference in earning an NCAA Tournament berth.
As the calendar creeps closer to February, to the time when the word "bubble" becomes an acceptable term and conference titles are won, winning one game sometimes can be the difference between the NCAA and the NIT, let alone finishing in the top three in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
So, with that as the backdrop, Boston College senior Sean Marshall buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the left sideline with two Florida State Seminoles draped over him, giving the Eagles an 85-82 victory Tuesday night.
The reality of that one shot is this: BC remains atop the ACC standings at 6-1 (14-5 overall), which is a good thing, because there are plenty of roadblocks ahead that could knock BC back to the middle of the ACC pack.
The Eagles still have two games against Duke and Virginia Tech, play North Carolina and Clemson at home and have road trips to Florida State, Georgia Tech and Miami still pending, so there's much work to be done after losing dismissed shot-blocker Sean Williams. But if Marshall's shot had not gone down, if this game had gone into overtime and the Eagles faltered -- which was extremely possible the way the Seminoles were shooting after halftime -- they could have officially been reeling.
BC was coming off a 20-point loss at Clemson, its first game without Williams and reserve forward Akida McLain. A loss to FSU on Tuesday, and the psychological damage would have been done. With a road game at Duke pending Sunday, recovery could have been even more difficult. It's hard to call a game a must-win for a team that enters at 5-1 in the ACC, but based on the circumstances, this one qualified.
"These guys feel that they're a first-place team right now and they're not willing to relinquish it that easily," BC coach Al Skinner said, who essentially is down to seven players. "If we're going to remain atop this league, we've got to win at home. If we just want to be a team that is an OK ballclub, then we didn't have to win. If we want to compete and be atop this league, then we do."
The Eagles stayed with Clemson for the first 19 minutes before they got overrun in the final minute of the first half and ultimately were unable to defend the Tigers in the second half. The Eagles were unsure about how to play without Williams as a stopgap along the baseline. The uncertainty still existed Tuesday against the Seminoles in the first half, as the Eagles were hesitant to jump out on 3-point shooters for fear of leaving the inside unprotected. The end result, though, has made the Eagles more confident.
"[The win over FSU] shows that we can play without [Williams]," sophomore guard Tyrese Rice said. "We were kind of down at Clemson. Even though no one said it, we were emotionally down and we let it get to us."
"We don't have a shot-blocker, so we've got to play defense together," Marshall said. "We're still a confident offensive group. We can all score, me, Jared [Dudley], Tyrese and Shamari [Spears]. We just have to step it up defensively."
The Eagles will be judged by the NCAA Tournament selection committee mainly from this past Saturday forward. It's not that the first portion of the schedule -- the wins over Michigan State, Maryland and at UMass, or even the losses to Vermont and Duquesne and at Kansas -- will be discounted. They won't be looked at the same, though, since the Eagles are a different team without Williams. The team that is playing now is the one that would compete in the NCAA Tournament.
So, in the post-Williams season, the Eagles are 1-1. Finishing with a winning record without him in the team's final 12 games (including these last two) is a necessity.
What Marshall said is absolutely correct. The Eagles can score. Dudley had 23 points and continues to lead the ACC in scoring and double-figure games. Rice scored 26 and responded to each of the Seminoles' runs, using his water-bug body to find his way into the lane for a bucket against the shot clock or knocking down a late 3. His last 3-pointer arguably was his most important -- and clearly his most untraditional, when it hit the back side of the rim and then just dropped in the bucket for an 81-80 lead with 27.8 seconds remaining.
Marshall, who wasn't the first choice a year ago to finish games, as his emotions sometimes disrupted his play, was calm on his final shot. He had to sit a chunk of time in the second half with four fouls, yet the senior wing was well aware of time and score when he caught an inbounds pass from Dudley with 5.1 seconds remaining. He said he hadn't hit a shot like that, a game-winner, since high school.
One other aspect of Tuesday's game to watch going forward was the little bit of offensive confidence for 6-11 center Tyrelle Blair (the transfer from Loyola). Blair is being thrust into more playing time now with Williams gone, and the team is learning to more patient with him. Against Clemson, Blair missed a shot and didn't get the ball back, and Skinner scolded the team for backing away from him when he was open.
Tuesday night, Blair missed a dunk and ran back down court, seemingly with his shoulders down. On the next offensive possession, though, Marquez Haynes fed Blair for a layup attempt. He got fouled and made both free throws, which pulled BC back to within three at 68-65.
"Tyrelle is a player that, if he's confident, he's going to play, and if he's not, then he's just going to be out there," Rice said. "Marquez going right back to him is big for his confidence."
Someone asked Skinner after Tuesday's game if he is concerned about two or three Eagles needing to play all 40 minutes. Dudley and Rice did and Marshall probably would have if he hadn't been saddled with fouls. Skinner isn't the person, though, to push about fatigue.
"These guys are playing for a guy that played every minute that was available to him," said Skinner, a forward at UMass and then in the ABA and NBA in the '70s. "I played every minute that I had a chance to play. I never wanted to come out. I understand a guy getting tired, but they've got to be prepared to play, and to be a player in this league -- a real player -- you've got to play 40 minutes. As far as fatigue goes, I'm not the guy that understands that."
Dudley said the win over the Seminoles sends a message to the league that they're going to be a "tough out."
"We're not going to roll over. ... Realistically, we can finish in the top three, or even win the title. I'm not going to say we can't. We have Carolina here."
But on Sunday the Eagles visit Duke, a team that beat BC twice last season in two gritty games.
"I don't know about the rest of the team, but I'm looking at this as a payback game," Marshall said about the Eagles losing a pair of tough decisions to the Blue Devils last season. "They beat us twice last year and there are a lot of emotions flying around for that game. It's going to be tough playing at Duke with their crowd, but we have a good chance to win if we go down there and execute and play good defense."
The confidence emanating from Marshall may not have been there Tuesday night if he hadn't made that last shot. Sometimes, that's all it takes to change a season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.