It was your typical basketball fight. Some chest-to-chest tough talk. A lot of lip service back and forth. An irritated referee in the middle trying to get everyone back to their corners.
It was the kind of dust-up that a lot of coaches would roll their eyes at in the middle of an 84-70 season-opening win. But Boston College’s Steve Donahue stood by his bench a few feet away from the mosh pit between his players and a charged-up Florida International team and watched with a more than a little bit of curiosity.
The Eagles were at a tipping point. Their 16-point halftime lead fully dissolved when FIU’s Malik Smith sized up Ryan Anderson at the 3-point line, pulled up, and drained it over the 6-foot-8-inch Eagle to tie the game at 65.
“He was being very assertive offensively and I think I might have took that upon myself to be more aggressive offensively, too,” Anderson said. “But it was nothing personal.”
Anderson came back down the court and knocked down a midrange pull-up to give the Eagles the lead again. Things got dicey, though, when the Eagles turned an FIU turnover into a fast break.
Anderson took a feed from freshman point guard Joe Rahon and made a beeline for the basket. Smith threw himself in front of the freight train, body-blocking Anderson so hard that the BC sophomore made a bowling ball’s thud when he hit the hardwood along the baseline.
Anderson popped up before any of his teammates could grab him. He blew a hard puff of air and clapped his hands, more to himself than anyone else. Meanwhile, bodies were pushing and shoving behind him.
“I had some emotions going,” Anderson said. “Somebody ran at me, and stopped me. Somebody got him. And then we just banded together and said, ‘This is enough.’ ’’
Eagles freshman point guard Olivier Hanlan was in the middle of it all.
“I just didn’t like the foul,” Hanlan said. “It was a pretty hard foul. So I just wanted to step up for him.”
Smith was hit with a flagrant foul, Anderson hit the two ensuing free throws, Florida International scored two baskets the rest of the game, and the Eagles literally fought their way to a win that was as much a sign of newfound toughness as it was growth.
“I think it just showed how much of a family we are,” Anderson said. “A guy goes down, I think everyone wants to pick him up. I think it’s a big maturation process for us. Last year, when a team would have tied us after we had a big lead like that, we would have crumbled. We wouldn’t have been able to execute down the stretch.”
After watching his team win just five of 15 nonconference games a year ago and spend the majority of its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule being hazed by some of the best teams in the nation, a young Eagles team had some growing up to do coming into a new season. Donahue saw the win as an important step in his players’ maturation.
“The one thing we’ve tried to always to get across to these guys, there such nice kids,” Donahue said. “Maybe that got them angry.”
There was a mentality Donahue learned in his 10 years under former Penn coach Fran Dunphy that he wanted to see in his players.
“He used to jump onto the court and he’d say, ‘Nasty,’ ” Donahue said. “Then, he’d jump off the court and say, ‘Nice.’ That’s what it’s all about.
“With this group, we need that. That’s something that we’ve talked about. These kids are so darn coachable almost to a fault. Sometimes I want them to say, ‘Screw the coach, let’s do what we need to to get it done.’ ”
Anderson was the perfect example. Last season, he led all ACC rookies in double-doubles. He likely led the conference in smiles, handshakes, ‘Yes, sirs,’ and ‘Yes, ma’ams.’ But his 29-point, 17 rebound effort was an intense start to the season. He ranged for rebounds that were above the rim and out of his area and was vocal when the team desperately needed to end FIU’s second-half run.
“There were a few plays where we came together as a group and said, ‘Let’s just get three stops in a row,’ or ‘Let’s get a good shot on this play,’ ” Anderson said. “And when we’re all on the same page like that, everyone’s playing with the same purpose.”
In the backcourt, Hanlan (12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) and Rahon (5 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists) also bring an element of fearlessness that isn’t always a given with freshmen.
“They make a lot of little plays that maybe don’t show up in the stat sheet, but help us win games,” Anderson said.
There were times when it looked like the Eagles would run FIU out of Conte Forum, Donahue said, and there were times when they couldn’t stop them from scoring. But the win wasn’t about looks.
Hanlan said, “Everybody just kept fighting.”