MHERST -- It is as simple as this: When they claw, scrap and hustle, dive after every loose ball and attack the glass, they can contend with any team in college basketball. When they don't, they have no business being mentioned in the Top 25.
That's the state of the University of Massachusetts basketball team. Last year the team motto was, "Refuse to lose." This year it should be, "Refuse to play hard and we just might."
Last night against Florida State, a sometimes sluggish UMass team seemed destined for its fourth loss of the season with 10 minutes to play. Then it stepped up its intensity, held FSU to one field goal over the last 10 minutes and rallied from an 8-point deficit to defeat the Seminoles, 62-58, before 9,439 fans at the Mullins Center.
The win improves the 11th-ranked Minutemen to 17-3 overall and raises their mark against Atlantic Coast Conference teams to 3-0. UMass defeated then-No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinals of the preseason National Invitation Tournament and Maryland in the championship game of the Abdow's Hall of Fame Holiday Classic. The decision also extends the Minutemen's on- campus winning streak to 27 games, dating back to January 1992.
For a while last night, the streak seemed in serious jeopardy. Led by point guard Charlie Ward (10 points, 11 rebounds), shooting guard Chuck Graham (20 points) and forward Bob Sura (18 points), the Seminoles (9-8) led through most of the game and matched their biggest lead at 55-47 with 10:01 left on a 3-point basket by Graham.
Ward, of football Heisman Trophy fame, made UMass defenders lose their footing several times with spin moves and crossover dribbles. Graham, who didn't play because of an injury when the teams met last season, scored 10 of FSU's first 12 points. Sura, the team's leading scorer, tallied FSU's last 11 points of the first half after going the first 17 minutes scoreless.
"Florida State is better than people give them credit for," said UMass coach John Calipari, who added, "It's a great win, but I still don't know how we won."
With stingy defense and clutch rebounding, just when it appeared Florida State would pull away. UMass forward Donta Bright (10 points, 7 rebounds) scored 4 consecutive points, including a 3-point play with 7:36 left, to pull the Minutemen within 4 (55-51). Center Marcus Camby (11 points, 4 blocks) scored on a dunk after receiving a no-look pass from teammate Lou Roe, cutting the lead to 55-53.
Camby rebounded a missed free throw and scored on a put-back to pull the Minutemen within 1 (56-55). And Roe (15 points, 8 rebounds) scored on a turnaround jumper with 4:56 left, giving UMass a 57-56 lead.
"They turned their defense up; we had our opportunities, but we didn't finish," said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy. "UMass is an interesting team in that they always find a way to win. That's why they're ranked so high with no seniors."
Florida State regained the lead on a bucket by Sura with 3:44 left. Those turned out to be the Seminoles' final points.
The Minutemen tied the game on a free throw by Camby and got back-to-back buckets by Dana Dingle and Roe with 1:17 left for the game's final points.
"The last seven or eight minutes -- that's how we play defense," said Calipari, whose squad has come back to win after trailing at halftime five times this season.
"The only thing I say is that we have to come out better than we're starting," added Calipari. "We have to do a better job Sunday against Kentucky."
MHERST -- Doc Blanchard . . . Alan Ameche . . . Paul Hornung . . . Joe Bellino . . . Roger Staubach . . . O.J. Simpson . . . Herschel Walker . . . Doug Flutie . . . none ever played basketball against the University of Massachusetts.
And it's a little hard to imagine point guard Jim Plunkett leading Stanford into Curry Hicks Cage for a joust with Julius Erving and the Redmen in the winter of 1970-71.
It happened last night. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner came to Western Massachusetts to play in a nationally televised basketball game against New England's best college team. Florida State's Charlie Ward manned the point against the 11th-ranked Minutemen of UMass at the Mullins Center.
Ward has kept his cool in the eye of the (Miami) Hurricanes. He's been cheap-shotted by Nebraska linebackers. No problem. But last night he couldn't work any magic against Your State University. The Seminoles were unable to preserve an 8-point lead with eight minutes left, and Florida State succumbed to the Minutemen, 62-58. Bobby Bowden would have been mortified.
"The game is never over until it's 0:00 on the clock," said Ward. "By no means did we feel we had it won. We've made a big improvement. We're playing tough on the road now."
Such a comment would be unthinkable if Ward were here with his football brethren. UMass last night was favored by 19. But one shudders at what the spread might be if the Seminoles played the Minutemen in football.
''I can feel what it's like if a team in football against us is a 30- or 45-point underdog," admitted Ward.
Now he has to think about all these things. Now he has to answer both sets of questions. Ward is going where only Bo Jackson has gone. He is the young man who polishes the Heisman with his right hand while he works on dribbling with his left.
Football/basketball is a rare parlay. When you think of two-sport guys, you think of Bo, Deion Sanders, Gene Conley, John Elway, Danny Ainge, Dave DeBusschere, George Halas, Jim Thorpe and, of course, Trot Nixon. It's usually baseball/football or baseball/basketball.
Grids and hoops rarely mix. In the old days, Bud Grant pulled off the NBA/NFL double. John Havlicek was cut by the Cleveland Browns (in favor of Paul Warfield) just before he reported to the Celtics. K.C. Jones had a tryout with the Los Angeles Rams before he took a call from Red Auerbach. NFL defensive lineman Sam Clancy played hoop at the University of Pittsburgh.
And now there's Ward. The starting quarterback of the nation's No. 1 football team is quarterbacking the 9-8 Seminole basketball team.
Naturally, there is the usual debate. Which sport will Charlie choose when it comes time to play pro ball? He seems to be leaning toward the roundball game. In basketball, he probably can make more money in a shorter period of time without risking life-with-a-limp.
''I don't have a preference," he said after last night's loss. "I enjoy playing both. Whatever my decision will be, I don't know."
Football folks say Ward won't be one of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft. He's too small. His arm's not strong enough. He's not a pro passer. He looks like a defensive back. Those are the cliches. It sounds like the Doug Flutie Heisman Curse. Wise-guy UMass fans chanted "CFL" before last night's opening tap.
Ward faces some similar raps in basketball. He's not a scorer. He lacks NBA range. He's a basketball player in a football player's body. He can't play the strong man defense. He's not quite Rumeal Robinson.
FSU's loss to UMass was Ward's sixth game since he stripped off his shoulder pads. In his first five games, he averaged 9 points and five assists. Saturday in Atlanta, Ward beat Georgia Tech with a driving layup in the final two seconds.
His performance last night was mediocre. In 37 minutes, he made 4 of 10 floor shots, scoring 10 points with 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. He did not have an assist in the second half. He was powerless when UMass pulled away in the final eight minutes.
I have a feeling we're not in the Orange Bowl anymore.
Ward was trotted out to face the press after the game. He's very humble and soft-spoken.
"I'm sure everybody is trying to do their best against me because I get a lot of publicity," he said. "It really doesn't bother me. I'm the type of guy who likes challenges."
After the press conference, Ward was led into a hallway and gave a couple of television interviews while flanked by a pair of Shawn Eckardt look-alikes. After a few more soft, humble answers, he was whisked away by the bookend bodyguards.
It was a '90s moment for a '90s athlete.