The Garden was relaxed enough to feel like an exhibition game before Boston College and UMass tipped off yesterday. Even though the Northeastern-BU game right before had gone down to the wire, there wasn’t any energy in the building after the Huskies and Terriers cleared the court.
“Any idea where my seat is?” I asked a member of the BC staff while Northeastern tried to knock down a couple key free throws. He told me he didn’t know, but that I’d probably have to go through the stands to get there.
He asked me, with a smile, if I was nervous.
“Yeah, it’s really tough to write a good story in a fancy arena like this one,” I shot back, but I knew what he meant. Covering this team would probably get a lot less fun if the Eagles started the season 0-2.
I managed to work my way through the crowd and up into the concourse without making anyone stand up for me, a massive success. On the way to what I was hoping was a free media seat, I stopped for a snack. No real food in the media room.
“Who are you with?” a middle-aged man in a fading white sweater asked me when he saw the credential around my neck while waiting in line. He was grabbing a beer with his son. Very clearly Minutemen fans, they had been going through the game’s matchup when I walked up.
“BC,” I said. “The student paper.”
“Oh that’s great,” he said, flashing a genuine smile. “You enjoy it?”
I gave a standard answer about how awesome the job is. He asked me how I thought the game would go, and I give the same answer I pretty much always give when I get that question.
“I don’t know. Should be close.”
This time it was honest. I really didn’t know, and I wouldn’t bet on either team having an easy outing. UMass had Chaz Williams, and the three of us talked about how well he can score and how badly Providence’s Bryce Cotton hurt BC in the opener on Friday. Williams could give BC the same fits Cotton had. They didn’t sound too confident about any other player in particular, though.
They eventually got their popcorn and beer, wished me luck (I never know what to say when someone wishes me luck before I cover a game. Maybe they’re hoping my computer doesn’t crap out) and started heading to their seats. But the dad slowed down before he passed me and leaned in a bit.
“I think BC is going to get their ass kicked,” he said.
He laughed and patted me on the shoulder.
He was right. It wasn’t exactly a blowout on the scoreboard, but it was an ass kicking in the paint.
For as relaxed as the Garden was before the game, UMass cut through the breezy air with an overpowering ferocity in the second half on the way to an 86-73 win. Led by 6-foot- 10, 253-pound center Cady Lalanne, the Minutemen destroyed the Eagles down low. The numbers speak for themselves. Fifty-two UMass points in the paint compared to BC’s 26. Thirty second-chance points to 11. Forty-four rebounds to 27. Ten more shots for the Minutemen.
BC got its ass kicked, and head coach Steve Donahue said the game was that simple.
“[UMass] said, ‘We’re gonna drive the ball and throw it up there, go get it, and put it in the basket,” Donahue said. “That’s what they did, and they deserve all the credit. Lalanne just absolutely demolished us on the boards. I’m obviously very disappointed, but I give UMass a lot of credit. Right now that’s the way to beat us.”
He thought the same thing happened in the loss to Providence.
“Both teams came out and said, ‘I don’t think they’re tough enough to handle us on the glass,'” Donahue said of Providence and UMass’ second half mentality.
It’s so rare that a concept like toughness is actually the real difference-maker in a game. Toughness is almost exclusively a coachspeak term riddled with false, cliche meaning that helps avoid real issues like rotations in help defense, switching screens quickly enough, or throwing a forearm into a guy’s chest on every box out. All of those deficiencies can be grouped into a perceived overall lack of toughness, when in reality that explanation is too simple.
BC wasn’t tough enough to win on Friday or Sunday. It’s not that these players aren’t tough enough or that they’re soft. They’re not. That’s not the problem. But Lalanne had 27 points and 12 rebounds. Eight of those 12 boards came on the offensive end, and no one on BC’s roster came close to getting in his way.
Toughness wouldn’t be throwing an elbow or using a dirty move to shove him out of the way or anything like that.
Toughness would be Ryan Anderson, Eddie Odio, Alex Dragicevich or, hell, even Garland Owens, deciding that after the 16th or 17th second-chance point maybe they’ve had enough, and that no matter what happens on the next possession, if a shot went up they were going to throw the hardest forearm they had into Lalanne’s chest, turn around, and push him back. And then repeat that until they had to be subbed out.
That’s the toughness BC was lacking. It’s as much mental as it is physical. After two losses, the stigma from the past two seasons is already starting to creep back in.
BC isn’t tough enough. Throw the ball up at the rim. You can go grab it and put it back in. They won’t hold you off.
Donahue said UMass smelled blood and took advantage. Even the fans at the Garden, like that guy in line before the game, could smell it. The coach blamed himself, and his next move, his only move, is to make this his biggest point of emphasis now.
“I’m taking the blame,” Donahue said. “Ultimately I didn’t emphasize this enough. It’s emphasis. This is the most important thing now.”
Sometimes toughness is more than coachspeak. Sometimes toughness really is the difference in the game. And sometimes toughness, and whether or not you have enough of it to win, is all in your head. It’s all a game.