As #TMM8 crossed the halfway mark toward its 800-game goal, some realizations start to set in. More than anything, a familiar phrase -- "It's all downhill from here" -- echoes in my mind.
Our teams have reached the heart of conference play, and the cannibalization has begun. Over the next 50-plus days, Darwinian theory will play out on the hardwood, as teams knock one another out before standing proud with a conference championship and the opportunity to stave off the end for a few weeks or, hopefully, weeks.
Within that path, there are reminders that the end is near, such as the first conference loss and the first loss overall, a pain one of us has yet to experience thus far.
Tonight's game was going to be another noteworthy benchmark for one of these America East teams. Hartford and UMBC each entered the contest with an overall record of 2-14. With 11 conference games and a BracketBusters matchup left, a loss guaranteed that one team would not finish the regular season with a record above .500.
Winning more games than it loses is one of the many goals a team will chase during the season, getting to experience more thrills of victory and fewer agonies of defeat.
Whether the teams knew the mathematical importance of the game or were just invested in the conference matchup, they both came out with a swagger that defied their season's accomplishments up to this point. But after a sloppy start, with points matching turnovers (four each) to kick things off, Hartford was the team with the confidence tonight.
So, in a tipping point game on the season, what was the difference-maker tonight?
Well, on the court, it'd be easy to point to a 9-2 run for the Hawks at the end of the first half, giving them a lead they would never relinquish. (UMBC managed to pull within two early in the second half, but Hartford progressively pulled away after the under-12 media timeout for the 74-57 win.) The 11 3-pointers for the Hawks, compared to one for the Retrievers, made a big difference too. But I was more impressed by the leadership shown by Hartford coach John Gallagher
These two teams are still developing and are relatively young, with the Retrievers starting one senior and the Hawks starting two. While UMBC coach Randy Monroe spent most of the first half sitting on the bench and most of the second yelling at whoever was in his sights, Gallagher showed his skills as a mentor, acting as a cheerleader on the sideline subbing liberally to put his players in the best situation; he frequently would call for de facto line changes, subbing in an offensive unit and a defensive unit on nearly every dead ball.
Watching from the end line, I thought both teams were pretty evenly matched in terms of talent. It was the enthusiasm of Gallagher and his wise use of personnel that were the deciding factors tonight, in my opinion.
In the end, the Hawks pulled out their second straight win, and third of the past four. For a team that started the season 0-13, that an impressive hole to start climbing out of.
And sure, Hartford will likely join UMBC by permanently dipping below .500 sooner rather than later, but at least a win keeps that hope a little longer. If there's one thing that drives the Mid-Majority (besides horchata and BLAPP), it's hope.