Garden event gets hoop season kicking

BOSTON -- The city was theirs.

For a day, at least, Boston was a college town. With none of the city’s professional teams in action on Sunday -- the Patriots on a bye, the Bruins and Celtics off after big wins on Saturday and the Red Sox still basking in the glow of their World Series victory -- six of the state’s seven Division I men’s hoops teams took to the parquet at TD Garden.

Boston University kicked off the Coaches vs. Cancer Tip-Off Classic tripleheader with a 72-69 win over Northeastern, UMass followed with an 86-73 win over Boston College and Harvard capped the day with an 82-72 win over Holy Cross.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity for us to participate in this tip-off classic,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said after his team ended the day of basketball with a hard-fought, back-and-forth win over the Crusaders. “We’re thrilled to be a part of this for Coaches vs. Cancer, to have an opportunity to support an amazing cause. I’m sure the games prior to our game were sensational.

“And we like to think that the game that we played against Holy Cross was another entertaining game, and maybe we’ll have some traction with this event going forward.”

For fans of Massachusetts college hoops eager for action, it’s hard to think of a better way to kick-start the season. With speedy guards, dead-eye shooters and powerful post players all on display, there seemingly was something for everyone on Sunday.

In true BU-NU fashion, the opener was a nail-biter. The Terriers led for much of the game but, as befits a rivalry in which the past six meetings had been decided by single digits, the Huskies rallied in the second half.

Led by St. Francis (Pa.) transfer Scott Eatherton (15 points, 10 rebounds), Northeastern came from down as many as eight to lead by as many as five with four minutes to go. But Boston University didn’t quit.

“It’s been unbelievable, our games,” BU coach Joe Jones said of recent BU-NU meetings. “The thing I’m most proud of is we knew they were going to make a run. In the second half, they made their run, and our guys really, really just stayed with it and made plays down the stretch. And that resiliency is what we’re going to need if we’re going to have the success that we want to have.”

With the Terriers’ offense struggling, Jones turned to sophomore point guard Maurice Watson Jr. The diminutive guard -- at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, one of the smallest players in the building on Sunday -- with the unbelievable first step scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half, including six in the final four minutes, to start his team’s first season in the Patriot League with a win.

“When you do things like these, you just count your blessings,” Watson said of playing in the Garden. “You know everybody can’t do this type of thing every day. These bright lights, this is what you live for. Every kid growing up dreams of playing on an NBA court, where Larry Bird played or Michael Jordan had big games.

“This event, it’s good that it got going and it’s for a good cause. To be a part of that cause … it makes you appreciate the blessing that you have.”

UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who grew up in Springfield, Mass., starred as a player for the team he now coaches, said being on the Garden sideline made him think of all the games he saw in the old Garden in the ‘80s.

“For us to be able to be a part of this and get to come to Boston, see this great city and spend some time here, and let the guys get their feet on the hardwood in the Garden, for me as a Massachusetts kid, that was a big honor,” he said.

It probably didn’t hurt his view of the event that the Minutemen were able to rally from a second-half deficit as large as nine to beat BC. Sampson Carter scored five straight points to start UMass’ run, Chaz Williams hit all five of his 3-pointers and the Eagles had no answer for the size and aggression of Cady Lalanne.

The 6-10, 250-pound junior scored eight straight points in one second-half stretch, cleaning up misses by Williams and Carter with offensive rebounds and putbacks.

BC coach Steve Donahue said Lalanne “demolished” the Eagles on the boards, and admitted he needs to reemphasize the importance of battling on the boards to his team.

While Sunday’s games were the first for five of the six teams, the Eagles already had played once. BC dropped a tough overtime contest at Providence on Friday night, falling to 0-2 after the loss to UMass.

“I honestly believe that you learn from your failures,” Donahue said. “When your back is to the wall, if you’re a competitor, you wouldn’t want to be in any other spot. We’re going to figure that out and get better because of it.”

The crowd, which was sparse to start for BU-Northeastern and to finish for Harvard-Holy Cross, was at its most robust for BC-UMass. The Minutemen’s student section was fired up, going as far as to boo whenever a BC fan was shown on the big screen and to cheer when one of their own was featured.

While far from filling the Garden -- bright gold seats were clearly evident throughout the event, and the upper deck was deserted all day -- the 6,037 in attendance during the day brought plenty of energy with them.

So did the Crusaders, who broke out to a lead on highly touted Harvard early and fought hard for 40 minutes. Senior Dave Dudzinski lit up the Crimson defense in the first half, dropping 20 points on them to keep his team within six at the break.

And though Harvard led by as many as 10 in the second half, Holy Cross rallied to take a one-point lead with 5:49 to go.

That woke up Harvard sophomore Siyani Chambers, who’d been having a miserable game to that point. Held scoreless through the first 20 minutes, the Golden Valley, Minn., native ripped off seven straight points after the Crimson lost the lead to put them back in front for good.

“They just made a few more plays down the stretch that we’re going to have to learn from,” Holy Cross coach Milan Brown said, “but I thought it was a great experience for our guys and obviously for a great cause.”

Part of the proceeds from Sunday’s tripleheader will go to the American Cancer Society’s Coaches vs. Cancer initiative, which seeks to raise money for research on and awareness of cancer.

Though his team didn’t get the result he was hoping for, Northeastern coach Bill Coen -- a key proponent of the event -- said it was a great experience.

“It’s very, very exciting for our players to be present in this building with all the great Celtic tradition,” he said. “To have this event come off with all the area schools participating is really, really a special day and a long time coming.

“I hope it was the first of many years to come of this event.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.