BC’s Brown ready for her swan song

Ayla Brown, the former “American Idol’’ contestant, wants to show off her leadership skills in her senior season at BC. Ayla Brown, the former “American Idol’’ contestant, wants to show off her leadership skills in her senior season at BC. (Aram Boghosian/For The Globe
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / November 11, 2009

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Ayla Brown could not be distracted. She could not lose her focus, even as second-year Boston College women’s basketball coach Sylvia Crawley tried to unnerve the 6-foot senior guard from Wrentham during an end-of-practice drill called “Pressure Free Throws.’’ Weary from running wind sprints with her teammates - as penance for missing their pressure foul shots during a recent preseason practice at Conte Forum - Brown volunteered to shoot.

“She just stepped up to the line,’’ recalled senior guard Mickel Picco, Brown’s roommate and closest friend on the team. “And Coach didn’t even call her name. She just stepped up and, at that moment, I was like, ‘All right, Ayla’s ready.’ ’’

As a way to mentally toughen her team, Crawley wraps up each practice with the drill. To add a bit of drama, Crawley heaps the pressure on the shooter by describing the scenario: game tied, little to no time left, parents in the stands, whole world watching. Make it, practice is over. Miss, and the whole team runs sprints.

“There was nothing you could say to rattle her - nothing,’’ Crawley said. “She steps up to the line and I’m like, ‘Now wait a minute. Your dad didn’t show up for this game. He’s at every game, but not at this game. He missed it. So I don’t know how you feel about your dad not being there, but there’s fans screaming at you.’ ’’

Brown remained undaunted. After all, she had faced the music before as a contestant on “American Idol’’ before her freshman year at BC. So if Simon Cowell couldn’t get her off her game, there was nothing Crawley could say to derail her. “Her face was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ ’’ Crawley said with a chuckle. “I turned to the team and said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to meet about who you want me to choose?’ and Ayla goes, ‘No, I got it,’ and they’re like, ‘Let her shoot it, Coach.’ She stepped up to the line and knocked it down.’’

Practice over.

“She’s a clutch player,’’ Crawley said. “She has that mentality.’’

Parental advisory
Brown has that and a lot of other things going for her as the Eagles’ songbird embarks on her swan song season at The Heights.

“I think to myself, ‘I can’t believe it was three years ago when I came in as a freshman,’ because it’s gone by so quickly,’’ said Brown, echoing a sentiment shared by her parents: State Senator Scott Brown, a candidate for the vacant US Senate seat, and Channel 5 reporter Gail Huff.

“Sometimes when I think about the difference between freshman, sophomore, and junior year, the years start to mesh together and that’s sad,’’ Ayla said. “Now I’m here in my last year and it’s going to go just as fast as those other years. I think this year’s been great so far and our team is melding together the best it has since I’ve been here.’’

There was a time, however, after she finished 12th in the “Idol’’ competition, when Brown felt overwhelmed. “I had just gotten off ‘Idol’ and mentally I was a little confused on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be,’’ she said.

The feeling was exacerbated when she arrived at BC’s campus and kept hearing whispers of “Oh, there’s that ‘American Idol’ girl’’ from passersby. When she got on the practice court, she got a sobering dose of reality when she discovered her guard skills were lacking, but made up for it by pitching in at the forward position.

If Brown had any doubts about going to BC, they were quickly dashed by her parents, who advised their daughter her music career could wait. “My husband and I felt strongly that she needed to get her degree,’’ Huff said. “It was non-negotiable. We were just looking out for her long-term success. We were a strong influence in that decision.

“Her goal was to go to BC, play Division 1 basketball, and make it to the NCAA Tournament. That’s been her goal since she was 10, and that’s why she committed to go to BC when she was 15.’’

So there was no deviating from the plan. “My parents are very powerful human beings,’’ Ayla said. “There’s no really backing down and accepting defeat. They always challenge my sister [Arianna, 19] and myself to make the next play, to challenge ourselves in our homework, to be a better person, and that really helps.’’

Brown’s father, a former Middlesex League MVP from Wakefield High and a Tufts captain who coached his daughter at a young age, has been a constant presence at her basketball games since high school at Noble & Greenough. At her BC games the last three seasons - home and away - Brown has always been able to locate her father in the stands for a quick, reassuring look.

Now he likely will not be able to attend as many games because of his campaign. Huff said her husband’s decision to run caused him great consternation because he knew it would force him to miss some of Ayla’s senior season.

The Eagles will play home games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents North Carolina State and Georgia Tech in the days leading up to the Jan. 19 special election.

“I worked it out with my campaign manager that I would give up going to the away games,’’ Scott Brown said. “But I am going to the home games.’’

“He’s been there for every year since, so I can’t get mad at him,’’ Ayla said. “However, it’s different when I’m not going to have him there. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I know him, he’s going to make it to as many as he can, even if he has to give up some of his campaigning stuff.’’

Vocal presence
Although senior guard Brittanny Johnson and junior center Carolyn Swords were voted team captains, the 21-year-old Brown is hoping to find her voice of authority on a team that surprised many last season by winning 23 games (including seven in the ACC) and advancing to the Final Four of the Women’s NIT.

It would only stand to reason that the player who was requested by the Maryland women’s basketball team last season to sing the national anthem before the Terrapins hosted BC on senior night, and the one who is a personal favorite of Paul Pierce to sing the national anthem at all Celtics playoff Game 7s, would be its vocal leader.

“Yeah, imagine that?’’ Picco mused. “In previous years, she didn’t know if she had that moment where she could say anything. But now she’s full-force ahead. She knows this is our year, our senior year, and we need to take the initiative and we need to step up and I think that’s the shoes she’s trying to fill.’’

When Crawley deferred to Brown in a recent team meeting and asked what she wanted her senior year, she replied, “I want to win an ACC championship.’’ To achieve that, Brown knows she will have to be more creative with her offense and will have to knock down clutch free throws and open jumpers, something she worked on this summer with Celtics guard Ray Allen.

“For me, personally, I know I need to be a consistent voice on the team,’’ said Brown, who last season averaged 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 35 games. “I also know that I need to be versatile, no matter if it’s playing the guard or the post.

“I need to be able to know my responsibilities. I need to know all the plays. I need to make sure I find the right people at the right times.’’

From the sound of it, BC’s vocal leader appears ready not only to be heard from this season but prepared to hit all the right notes.

Michael Vega can be reached at