I’ll admit, I turned to Matt when Chambers’s free-throws with 1:21 to go had Harvard up by five and offered some serious hyperbolic, Boston-sports-fan-WEEI-caller-level analysis: “The season’s over before it even started.” But then again, there was nothing in the previous 38+ minutes to suggest that the final 80 seconds would be any different. UMass found early penetration, but couldn’t finish; their outside shooting had completely vanished; the defense seemed incapable of getting a stop without committing a foul. Tommy Amaker, with a depleted roster, had engineered the perfect gameplan to shut down Chaz Williams. The Season of Great Expectations (TM) would immediately begin in an 0-1 hole. Is it hockey again yet?
Ah, but ye of little faith, this is Chazketball we speak of! If you blinked, you missed it: Jesse Morgan (coming off the bench after Freddie Riley whiffed on his opening-day start opportunity) put a tough little push shot through to cut the lead to 3. Then his stiff defense forced a 5-second violation which seemed like a lucky break in person, yet which was actually three seconds overdue after seeing the replay. Moments later, his three-pointer FINALLY re-connected and just like that, we had the Crimson tied. And then it was Chaz himself forcing another brilliant turnover on the sideline, and just like that, UMass had a tie game and the shot clock off. You know the rest.
Honestly, it’s really hard to know what to take out of this game. Clearly we all estimated Harvard, which still has a world-class coach and some talent on the roster, despite the losses. Hopefully, we also didn’t overestimate our own team, although it’s abundantly clear that a few of the key cogs are still a little creaky. Sampson, seemingly everyone’s sleeper pick to be a difference-maker this year coming off injury, was largely invisible until the end. Cady Lalanne was spectacular at times, with four blocked shots in a performance that had Matt comparing him to “old guy Shaq” (let’s hope the comparison stops before the injury history), yet he also seemed a step behind at times. He and Esho had difficulty finishing down low, which is such a crucial component to this squad when the outside shots just refuse to go down as they did for the middle portion of this game.
But the most important thing to take away from this game is this: it’s a 10 am game. It seems like a convenient excuse, but it’s hard to argue that these teams didn’t have moments of just complete disorientation. Athletes are fickle beings, their bodies not accustomed to changing their internal clocks to play at their prime potential after years and years of later start times. Sloppy play was expected, and both teams had that in spades.
Put simply: we’re not worried yet. The crowd was electric (given the circumstances at least), the team showed signs that they still have that switch they can turn on when they need to, and the result was a 1-0 record. There’s little rest for the weary – Providence awaits them in just two days down in Puerto Rico, albeit at a much more manageable 7:30 start time, and with a severely depleted roster. As you probably know, the prospects of playing #6 NC State rest on whether or not the Minutemen can get past the Friars (provided Penn State doesn’t pull off a massive upset), and the Sunday finale is also much more likely to be a quality foe like Tennessee with an opening-day win. (Plus, I totally want to see them take on He Who Shall Not Be Named on Sunday. It could legitimately happen.)
So why focus on the negatives? The boys got a wake-up call, and thankfully, they woke up just in time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sleep – wake me up Thursday night at 7.