Game 084:(W6) LaSalle 70, (E3) Massachusetts 64 Atlantic 10 First Round
Wednesday, March 9, 2005 U.S. Bank Arena - Cincinnati, OH
Once upona time, someone got the bright idea to call upstart teams "Cinderellas." Every possible symbol of that classic bedtime story has been mined for metaphor - glass slippers, gowns, the Big Dance. While some of us think this is subtle condescension on the part of the Establishment, the corporate equivalent of calling inferior playground players "ladies," players and coaches still seem to lovingly embrace the label. To me, it would seem that this is proof that everyone involved is confident and secure in their manhood.
So while teams more accustomed to wearing rags line up for their shot at the Great Ball, LaSalle must be the Little Match Girl of college hoops. An afterthought in the Atlantic 10 for decades, the athletic department masked their denial after a hideous rape scandal last summer by lighting matches and thinking about the happy times. When the harsh light of day arrived, the frozen and lifeless body of LaSalle basketball was found dead in the street.
Okay, so maybe not dead, like the athletic programs that evil stepmother Myles Brand has placed on double-secret floor-scrubbing duty. The Explorers' roster lost its backcourt and 25 points per game, and they were forced to hire a new coach due to the scandal's fallout. Even in a down Atlantic 10, their season was a rotten pumpkin before it began.
But there's been one bright spot for the Explorers this year as they struggled to a Atlantic 10 West-worst 5-10 record (10 wins and 18 losses overall). The conference co-player of the year, as selected by the coaches, was a LaSalle junior named Stephen Smith. Number 30 in blue and gold is a 6'8" greyhound who was instant danger for opponents on any square foot of the court. He finished the regular season as the A-10's scoring leader averaging 20.7 points a game, and wene double-double 10 times over the course of 2004-05. He did all this in the face of double, triple and even quadruple-teams, with little help from a thin supporting cast, in front of NBA coaches who often made side-trips to watch a player who will likely figure prominently in the 2006 NBA Draft.
And in a conference tourney quarterfinal matchup as the West-6 seed, they went to Smith early and often in their attempt to keep their season alive. As if sprinkled with magic fairy dust, Smith's Explorers led the East-3 Massachusetts Minutemen for 39 minutes, primarily on the strength of his 19 points and seven rebounds.
Okay, so maybe not fairy dust, UMass and their doomed coach Steve Lappas were extremely helpful to LaSalle's efforts. The Minutemen's man-sized grenade, Raushaun Freeman, had trouble dominating down low early, and sat on the bench for most of the first half thinking about how to get himself out of the slump. While he was out, the rest of the whiteclads shot 30% and found themselves down 33-29 at the break. Freeman eventually had his moments of brilliance, but every Minuteman run was matched in turn.
And then, the tale's turning point. With two minutes remaining and LaSalle clinging to a three-point lead, Smith took an elbow smash in the face and stood on the sidelines holding his cheek. The Explorer band looked on in silence, hands over mouths in disbelief. When the injury timeout concluded with Smith taken to the clubhouse for examination, his shaken teammates relinquished the lead. After trailing for the entire game, UMass caught LaSalle at the :45 mark.
A few real-time minutes later, Smith emerged from the locker room. But there was no loud ovation as the ones that met Willis Reed and Larry Bird when they emerged from simlar darknesses years ago - there were only about 500 people in the stands. Smith charged down the sideline to the bench - he was back, and the third act could begin.
But Smith would not return to the game, inspire his team onward to victory, like Reed did in the 1970 Finals, even for a few inspiring minutes. He bounded to the scorer's table to check in, but LaSalle coach physically restrained him - John Giannini would not risk further injury to his star. The scrappy Explorers held on just long enough to force overtime, but the task there would be daunting. UMass was 5-0 in plus-sized games, and usually wore their opposition down with physical play in such situations.
In the extra period, an awkward widebody named Mike St. John nullified the Minutemen's muscle advantage, and scored all 11 of his team's points - most of those at the line. Smith stayed on the bench the whole time, and the Explorers pulled away for a six-point denoument. Their celebration was joyous yet muted, as if they first had to process the reality that they'd have to unpack their suitcases. It wasn't happily ever after - a single tomorrow would have to do.
Lappas' Minutemen finished with their first winning season in five years at 16-12, and beat Connecticut in December, but another in a growing series of first-round tourney exits will surely result in his eyes being pecked out by birds. Metaphorically, of course.
As for the 2004-05 Explorers, their book was slammed shut by Xavier a day later, so their ending had the happy/cruel close of so many fairy tales. Other than their version of Cinderella, the Grimm Brothers told hundreds of such stories, surely there must be one about a big white guy who scores a bunch of points in overtime and teaches his team to believe in themselves.