AMHERST — A storybook ending would have had the big guy’s return immediately providing a big boost. Didn’t happen.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
Following Cady Lalanne’s double-double off the bench in a University of Massachusetts loss last weekend, coach Derek Kellogg opted to return the 6-foot-10-inch sophomore to the starting lineup — where he spent the season’s first half-dozen games before he was suspended for one game following an on-campus incident.
Lalanne took the floor from the opening tip Wednesday night at St. Bonaventure, and he contributed 12 points along with six boards. But his effort couldn’t prevent UMass from losing its third straight game to slip in the Atlantic 10 standings and lose all but the faintest hope for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Saturday afternoon was a different story, though, as Lalanne used his inside muscle to lift the Minutemen out of their doldrums. He scored a career-high 22 points and tied a career best with 14 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end, to boost UMass to a 76-66 victory over Dayton before a well-entertained 6,096 at the Mullins Center.
“Their big guy, Cady — I think that’s how you say it, I don’t know,’’ Dayton coach Archie Miller began, mispronouncing Lalanne’s given name. One suspects he’ll be more familiar with the kid next time, after acknowledging that his Flyers “had no answer’’ for “probably the best big man we’ve played all season.’’
Miller won’t get an argument out of Lalanne’s coach. “It’s nice to see Cady kind of solidify the middle for us,’’ said Kellogg, “especially on the boards.’’
Most especially on the offensive boards.
The game swung back and forth for much of the afternoon, particularly during a furious stretch early in the second half. Lalanne triggered the flurry with a nice move inside to give UMass (17-9, 7-6) a 39-37 lead. Dayton (14-12, 4-8) then got a quick hoop inside from Vee Sanford (team-leading 14 points), Chaz Williams went end to end for the Minutemen, and Dyshawn Pierre did the same for the Flyers. A dunk by Freddie Riley off a Williams alley-oop ignited the crowd but didn’t deter Dayton, which raced back down the court and tied the game on a Josh Benson drive. In less than a minute, each team had scored three baskets and the building was electrified.
The momentum remained with UMass, which scored the next 8 points — including dunks by Raphiael Putney and Maxie Esho — to create some distance with just over 14 minutes remaining. It didn’t last. Despite not having won a road game in the A-10 all season, the Flyers still had some oomph. They Flyers used an 11-0 burst over the next three minutes to take the lead. After a Riley 3-pointer halted the run and tied the score, the teams traded the lead until there was less than four minutes left . . . and Lalanne took charge.
He hit a pair of free throws off an offensive rebound to put UMass ahead by 4, and half a minute later he grabbed another on the offensive glass, was fouled again, and added two more free throws to make it a 6-point game. He added a big rebound in traffic at the other end, and a couple of 3-pointers by Terrell Vinson iced it.
“I thought we got one or two good defensive stops that led to transition baskets,’’ Kellogg said of the decisive stretch. “And the reality is, we took one or two bad shots, and Cady cleaned them up. That’s what I kind of expect out of him.’’
Lalanne was asked whether that is what he expects out of himself. “That’s the expectation I put on myself,’’ he said, “and my coaches and teammates put it on me, too.’’
Sitting next to him was Williams, who nodded as the big guy spoke, then added, “Twenty-and-20 guy, every night.’’
That might sound like a fanciful depiction of Cady Lalanne, but not to their coach. “I actually think,’’ said Kellogg, “he has another gear or two that he can play at.’’