Gaffney providing big lift on defense

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Tony Gaffney might look at you funny if you compare him to Stephane Lasme.

But after his defensive performance during the second half of Saturday night’s win over Marist, the 6-foot-8 reserve forward may have to reconsider the legitimacy of the comparison.

“I don’t know, man,” Gaffney said laughing after the game, shutting down the thought.

Perhaps he’s right. Because even after recording five blocks in the victory, the redshirt junior is still more than a few blocked shots away from breaking Lasme’s school record. Just 387 more needed for Gaffney to surpass the 399 shots that Lasme swatted away as a member of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.

Gaffney didn’t break any records on Saturday, but he did help the Minutemen break away from a tough and talented Marist squad.

“When we were down 58-52, I brought the team together and told them, ‘we are not losing this game,'” Gaffney said. “Everybody looked at me and agreed and we decided we were going to win the game on the defensive end. We ended the game on a 34-10 run, and that was the end of the story.”

The words of encouragement he gave his teammates certainly may have helped, but his five blocks in the final 12 minutes of the game helped even more.

“Huge, huge,” UMass coach Travis Ford said when asked about the impact Gaffney’s defense made on the game. “It was huge because we haven’t had a physical presence behind our defense; that’s what killed us [in the loss] against IUPUI.”

Gaffney’s final block on Marist guard Jay Gavin with 1:09 left in the game drew the biggest applause from the crowd. It was his third block in a 31-second span and the most emphatic blocked shot of the night, though the least important. The Minutemen already had the game well in hand at the time.

Blocked shot No. 1 and No. 2 came approximately seven minutes apart, but both occurred at crucial junctures in the game – when the two teams were trading baskets in the second half.

Up two points with 11:30 remaining, Gaffney blocked Dejuan Goodwin’s jumper. UMass couldn’t capitalize on its possession and Marist went on a 11-3 run to take a 58-52 lead. With 4:45 left and UMass again up by two, Marist’s leading scorer Louie McCroskey drove into the lane looking for the tying layup.

Gaffney set the attempt back in the other direction, leading to a fast break opportunity. Gary Forbes picked up the loose ball and sent it to Ricky Harris who converted the 3-point play after he was fouled on a layup – giving the Minutemen a 5-point lead and all the cushion they needed.

“It was a true case of the first time this year where our defense was the reason we won,” UMass coach Travis Ford said. “Our defense in the last eight minutes fueled our offense, and we haven’t been able to say that much this year.”

Gaffney hopes that the victory over Marist will silence some of the critics.

“Every time I hear that we’re not a good defensive team, I take that straight to heart,” he said. “As much pride as our team takes on offense, I try to take that pride on defense, and against IUPUI we really struggled. But we made it a point, obviously, all week in practice. All we did was defense and I think it showed in the second half.”

Gaffney played 12 minutes in the second half, split into two shifts. He entered the game with 8:41 remaining for his final appearance, playing for the remainder of the contest. He made the most of it and so did the team, as the Minutemen outscored the Red Foxes, 31-12, during that span.

“He provided a great lift. We always see that in Tony, ever since he first got here blocking shots,” point guard Chris Lowe said.

He won’t block 387 more shots, but those Gaffney-Lasme comparisons don’t seem so crazy for that one night.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]