Both Boston College and Villanova share common Catholic roots, but the similarities between the two teams pretty much stop there.
When they matched up in the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Eagles put their size on full display with 6-foot-7 swingman Jared Dudley, 6-foot-7 forward Craig Smith, and a pair of 6-foot-10 centers in Sean Williams and John Oates. No BC starter stood under 6-foot-4, while only one Wildcat starter in the guard-heavy lineup was taller than 6-foot-4. Led by guard Randy Foye, Villanova’s senior class was widely recognized as the best in the nation. Meanwhile, the Eagles were a ragtag group of castaways that were turned away from elite programs (Smith’s nearby dream schools, UCLA and USC, didn’t want him) before finding sanctum in head coach Al Skinner’s program. The two brands of basketball were as divergent as the state lines that separated them.
“They didn’t come in with the biggest reputations,” Skinner said in a phone interview. “They weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans. They were just guys that had some talent and worked extremely hard.”
Early on, it appeared as if the Eagles’ inside-out blueprint would prove too much for undersized Villanova. Smith, a preseason All-ACC First Team selection, combined with guard Sean Marshall to launch BC out of the gates and into a comfortable 9-0 lead. But the Wildcats would erase their halftime deficit, finding an answer to the maroon and gold in Foye, who scored 21 of his 29 points after the intermission. His free throws with 2:18 remaining in regulation gave Nova its first lead of the game, 49-48.
“You expected them to respond, just like they expected us to respond,” Skinner said. “When you play at that level, you’re not surprised at what people do. You just have to be prepared.”
With just over a minute left and a chance to put his team up by three, Wildcat guard Allen Ray used a screen to blow past Dudley and into a seemingly open lane to the hoop.
And so began what fans and players have come to know as the “Sean Williams Block Party.”
Williams, one of college basketball’s best shot-blockers and a 2007 first-round draft pick, was an integral force in the paint for Skinner’s squad, but could never seem to stay out of trouble off the court. In 2005, the University suspended the Houston native for a semester after he was arrested for marijuana possession. Four years later, he was invited to attend a BC-Duke home basketball game, only to be arrested for violating a no-trespassing order.
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A month after that, he earned a suspension from the New Jersey Nets for charges relating to an altercation with a store clerk. During a brief stint with the Mavericks in 2011, he came off the bench and ignited the crowd with two monstrous alley-oops before retreating back to the bench and vomiting. Most recently, he was arrested for drug possession in an Iowa casino.
“He was one of the nicest kids in the world, but he just couldn’t stay out of trouble,” said Mike Shalin, who covered the team as a beat reporter for The Boston Herald throughout the season.
But there was a reason Williams was drafted 17th overall despite never playing a full season in Chestnut Hill. In just 15 games in the 2006-07 season, he blocked 75 shots.
“Sean was a freak athlete,” the Eagles’ point guard and current UMass Lowell assistant coach Louis Hinnant said in a phone interview. “Along with being tall and long, he could just jump out of the gym.”
Ray got a little taste of that leaping ability when he watched Williams appear out of nowhere to elevate and send his floater right back where it came from.
For BC fans, rejections like these weren’t a surprise at all. But what happened next, when Williams grabbed his own block and wrestled with Nova forward Will Sheridan, shocked Skinner.
“[Williams] had the ball—it was a great block—he grabs the ball and [Sheridan] grabs his arm and pulls him to the floor,” Skinner said. “How can that not be a foul? Then he calls him for a walk. That was a big play in the game.”
The travel gave the ball back to the Wildcats with a minute to play. This time, Foye made sure to avoid Williams, spinning around his defender and giving Nova a 51-48 advantage with 44 seconds remaining.
After Hinnant missed a 3-pointer, Williams gave the Eagles another chance thanks to a scrappy offensive board. Dudley caught the ball outside the arc, took a dribble to his right, and threw up an off-balance prayer:
“It was a play we’ve always run, so he knew what to do,” Skinner said. “He was comfortable, so it just came in rhythm.”
51-51. Now, all BC had to do was play defense to force overtime.
And what better man to do it than Williams?
With all eyes on Foye, the Eagles left Kyle Lowry wide open for a potential game-winning three. When the pass was thrown, Williams was still standing on the other side of the court. His inhuman spring out to Lowry is hard to watch just once.
“That was a hell of a block,” Hinnant said with a laugh, watching footage of the game for the first time.
And so it went to extra time, free basketball for all in attendance witnessing an instant classic.
“Keep in mind, 51-51, that was our type of game,” Hinnant said. “We wanted to junk it up a little bit, pound it inside, play physical, run our flex, things like that.”
Craig Smith, the Eagles’ leading scorer, was certainly comfortable fighting for points in the post. On the first play of overtime, though, Smith lost his footing on a drive to the basket and fell hard on his left wrist.
“Craig had a way with injuries,” Hinnant said. “Sometimes he would over-exaggerate things that weren’t that bad. So when he came and he was like, ‘My hand! My hand hurts!’ Everybody was like, ‘We don’t have time for that right now, Craig.’ And then it turns out that he actually broke his hand.”
But even a broken bone couldn’t slow down Smith. Down 56-53 with just over two minutes on the clock, the big man received a feed from Marshall in the post and used his right hand to finish the layup and draw the foul. Hampered by the injury and wincing at the charity stripe, Smith would miss the free throw that would have completed the 3-point play.
With only 18 seconds left to play and Villanova clinging to a slim 58-57 lead, it was Smith, again, for BC. The school’s second all-time leading scorer powered his way inside, dribbling exclusively with his right hand, and flicked up a hook shot that stuttered on the front of the rim before falling through the net.
59-58. One more defensive stand for the Eagles, and they were headed to their fourth Elite Eight in program history. And they knew exactly who would have the ball for the Wildcats.
Foye dribbled up the court with about 10 ticks on the clock and used a crossover to shake off Marshall on his way to the rim. As Foye rose up to lay in the game-winner, Williams, too, elevated. The 6-foot-10 center got his way, rejecting Foye for his third block of the game. With 3.5 seconds remaining, the loose ball trickled out of bounds and the referee signaled for Villanova’s ball. One final inbounds play. One last chance.
“We wanted Sean on the ball,” Hinnant said. “We didn’t communicate on the switch in the time.”
“We were supposed to switch on screens, and we didn’t do that. It created an opportunity for them, and they took advantage of it,” Skinner said.
No, not a block—a goaltending call to give the Wildcats miracle 60-59 win. It was all-too poetic, considering the Eagles’ ability to play above the rim was their forte, the reason they made it this far. Yet, this time, it ended their season.
“I’m extremely upset about the loss. I think I’m past the point where ‘not a day goes by,’ maybe now it’s ‘not a week goes by.,’” Hinnant said. “If I hit one of those shots … All that stuff still runs through your mind.”
“I don’t know if BC will ever have a team like this,” Dudley said after the game. “It is a heartbreaking loss.”
Smith would leave for the NBA, and Dudley and Williams would follow suit the next year. Skinner, the 2001 National Coach of the Year, was fired in 2010.
And the state of the program today? Well…
“[The 2005-06 team] feels like 100 years ago,” Shalin said.
Sometimes it’s healthy to rake over the ashes, even now when those ashes now seem like sweet, sweet gold.