MHERST - After 26 contests, they're still a difficult team to figure, one capable of beating or losing to practically any adversary. Say this about the University of Massachusetts's enigmatic campaign: The outcome of its previous game is no indication of what will happen next.
The same team that blew a 15-point second-half lead in a loss to Atlantic 10 rival Rhode Island a week ago, then played horribly at the start of Wednesday's loss to league foe George Washington, rendered one of its guttiest and most complete performances of the season yesterday - a 78-77 double-overtime win over Xavier, which entered the contest with the conference's best overall record.
Forward Chris Kirkland had 25 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Minutemen, who had three players with double-doubles for the first time since Feb. 28, 1996. UMass withstood several defensive lapses in regulation and the extra frames to improve to 12-14 overall, 8-6 in conference. Xavier (19-8, 11-3), which entered tied with George Washington in first place in the Atlantic 10 West, sustained its second loss to the Minutemen in three seasons.
UMass center Lari Ketner (20 points, 12 boards, 3 blocks) hit a fadeaway jumper with 39 seconds left that proved to be the winning basket. On the game's last possession, Xavier guard Gary Lumpkin split the Minuteman defense for a layup attempt, but the shot caromed off the rim as time expired.
Xavier forward James Posey (19 points, 12 rebounds) put Lumpkin's miss back in on a dunk, but it was ruled the attempt came after the horn sounded. ''We took the ball right to the rim,'' said Xavier coach Skip Prosser. ''Can't get a much better one.''
UMass's victory made up for its usual ending in regulation. The Minutemen led, 63-61, with 24 seconds left, but they missed two one-and-one free throws and then saw Xavier tie it when forward Winston Smith fouled Posey in the backcourt with 2 seconds left. Posey sank the two free throws.
''I didn't even see what happened,'' said Ketner about the foul. ''I just ran up the court, next thing you know, I heard a whistle.''
Moreover, UMass led, 70-68, with 37.3 seconds remaining in the first OT, but with 7 seconds left, Xavier guard Lenny Brown (23 points) hit a driving layup in the middle of the defense to tie it.
''Every time they came to the bench we just kept saying we were going to win the game,'' said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. ''In practice, we talk about playing in five-minute sessions. We just kept saying, `Let's go out and play another five-minute session.'''
With two league games to play, the Minutemen are within a game and a half of second-place Rhode Island (which visits St. Joseph's today) in the A 10 East.
The conference tournament is less than two weeks away, and yesterday's victory over Xavier and narrow defeats against George Washington and Rhode Island prove that the Minutemen could win the tournament and salvage a most disappointing season with an NCAA Tournament automatic bid.
Then again, losses to Fordham (fifth place in the East) and St. Bonaventure also mean the Minutemen could suffer an early exit. But Flint said his team, which also got 21 points and 10 rebounds from guard Monty Mack, is fighting through adversity better than it did earlier.
''Today, we just stayed with it,'' he said. ''Nobody put their heads down. We're still fighting hard.''
MHERST - This one was for the patient few who have sat through every UMass disappointment this year, from the giveaways against good teams to the unthinkable upsets by nobodies.
The Minutemen (12-14), improbable candidates that they are for any sort of postseason consideration, at least gave their fans a little taste of the tournament in February with yesterday's 78-77 double-overtime win over Xavier (19-8).
As in days of old, not only did three Minutemen break 20 points, but all three finished with double-doubles.
As their predecessors once did in that not-so-distant era of national respectability, Monty Mack, Lari Ketner and Chris Kirkland gave UMass distinctive options from three different spots on the floor.
No offensive gridlock. No shutting down at the first sign of a threat. Free throws were made when they counted the most.
Ketner, with 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, finally played up to the promise of his 6-foot-10 billboard.
Kirkland followed up a 26-point performance against George Washington with 25 points (on 9-of-12 shooting) and 13 boards yesterday. Mack chipped in his requisite 21 points to go along with a career-high 10 rebounds.
``If we had played like this all season, then we wouldn't be in this position now,'' said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. ``What we did today was to stay with it. Just go out there and grab a couple of rebounds, knock down a couple of free throws. Nobody put their head down.
``We fought back. We could have caved in Wednesday (against George Washington), but we fought back. We could have caved in (yesterday), but we fought back.''
UMass finally sealed this one with 41 seconds left in the second overtime when Ketner rebounded a Mack miss and banked in the put-back without touching the floor.
Xavier came back with an excruciating three-shot sequence in which Kevin Frey and Lenny Brown both missed shots, only to see the Musketeers to chase down the rebound each time.
Gary Lumpkin then drove the lane and rolled a layup off the rim. The buzzer sounded just before James Posey went over the rim to dunk the ball.
The narrow margin was appropriate. UMass came that close to losing for the better part of 50 minutes.
The Minutemen appeared to have this one sewn up with two seconds left in regulation and Posey driving against Winston Smith in the backcourt. Smith did the unthinkable and reached for the ball, only to grab Posey's wrist.
The Xavier forward hit both free throws for a tie at 63.
UMass led again, this time late in the first overtime by a 70-68 score, when Brown drove past Mack and into the lane to tie the game with six seconds left.
The lead changed hands seven times in the second overtime before Ketner answered a Frey put-back with his own game-winner.
For once, it worked the right way.
MHERST -- It has taken the University of Massachusetts 26 games, but the Minutemen are now finally playing like the team they were predicted to be. Whether it's too late for the 1998-99 season remains to be seen.
Lari Ketner's putback of a three-point miss by Monty Mack with 39 seconds left in the second overtime gave the Minutemen a hard-fought 78-77 win over Xavier yesterday at the Mullins Center.
Ketner (20 points, 12 rebounds) was one of three UMass players to score 20 and have double-doubles. Chris Kirkland had a game-high 25 points and 13 rebounds, while Mack added 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Xavier still had a chance to win, but Gary Lumpkin missed a shot at the horn and James Posey's putback jam came after the final horn.
"I thought we'd play like that all year," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "We need big plays. We go to certain people, they make big baskets for us or make big stops for us. If we played like that all season, we wouldn't be in the position we're in right now."
"Half the season, we wish we could start over," Kirkland said with a laugh, an unfamilar sound in the UMass post-game media room of late. "We came out and we played hard."
UMass is now 12-14, and 8-6 in the Atlantic 10. Xavier is 19-9 and 11-3 in the A-10.
Had earlier chances
The Minutemen held leads near the end of regulation and the first overtime, but each time the Musketeers forced another period. The first time, Posey (19 points) hit two foul shots with two seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 63-63. In the first overtime, Lenny Brown (23 points) scored on a drive with six seconds left. He scored all seven Xavier points in the first overtime. But in the second OT, it was Ketner who saved the biggest play for last.
Xavier's Kevin Frey put his team ahead 77-76 on a tip-in with 51 seconds left. The Minutemen brought the ball downcourt, worked 13 seconds off the clock and Mack fired up a trey from the right corner. The shot was long, but Ketner elevated and tipped it in.
"I just grabbed it and put it against the glass," said the 6-foot-11 senior center, who added that he was off the ground when he put the shot up. "It just came right to me, and I tried to get it up quickly."
Xavier's Lumpkin got the ball with time running out and missed on the drive.
"We got the ball to the rim. You can't get a much better shot," said Xavier coach Skip Prosser. "Even though it was close, those aren't easy shots because of the size of Ketner."
UMass came out quickly, leading by 10 points with less than five minutes gone in the game. Xavier hung close and trailed 31-27 at halftime. In the second half, the Minutemen led by as many as nine points and held the lead until Xavier's Maurice McAfee drained a three-pointer with 4:17 left, making it 57-56 Xavier.
If the Minutemen can sweep their final two games at LaSalle Tuesday and at home next Sunday against Temple, that would make UMass 14-14 and a candidate for post-season play with a good performance in the Atlantic 10 Tournament next month.
"This was a rewarding win," said Ketner. "We needed this one. If we keep it up, it'll give us momentum going into the tourney."
MHERST, Mass. - It was destined to come down to the final possession. That's the kind of game it was.
And Xavier ended up losing by a split second Saturday.
Senior Gary Lumpkin rolled a running layup off the rim. James Posey dunked the rebound, but it was too late. The final horn had sounded.
With that, Massachusetts escaped with a 78-77 double-overtime victory over the Musketeers in a game of clutch plays, momentum swings and big individual performances.
"They didn't want to lose, we didn't want to lose," Lumpkin said. "It showed in the outcome."
UMass center Lari Ketner grabbed a rebound off a Monty Mack miss and banked in the go-ahead basket with 41 seconds left.
Xavier had three chances to win on its final possession.
Freshman Kevin Frey missed a baseline hook shot, but grabbed his own rebound. Senior Lenny Brown then missed a short jumper in traffic, but freshman Lloyd Price hustled after the rebound, which went out of bounds off the Minutemen.
With 7.3 seconds left, the Musketeers' last play was designed for Brown. He was to inbound to Lumpkin, then come off a Posey screen for a jump shot. Brown and Posey got caught in traffic, and Lumpkin saw that the pass wasn't there.
He knew time was running out. And he saw a brief opening to the basket.
"I thought I had a pretty good look," Lumpkin said. "When I drove, I saw Ketner step up. He wasn't at an angle where he was going to try to block the shot. He just tried to get a hand up. I thought it was going in."
Posey had to wait for the rebound to come off the rim.
As he jammed the ball through the basket, he saw the red light behind the basket come on.
"I didn't know," he said. "It could've gone either way."
Said Brown: "I was just hoping that they wouldn't have seen that. But I knew it was late. ... It's going to leave a little bitter taste in your mouth. It's one we could've had."
A sparse crowd of 6,311 at the Mullins Center and a national TV audience on ESPN watched what was Xavier's most down-to-the-wire game of the season.
"Tough loss," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. "None of them are easy.
"You can't get much better than your senior point guard taking it right to the rim. We'll take that. It wasn't an easy shot because of their size, but it wasn't a bad shot."
Brown led Xavier with 23 points. Posey added 19 points and 12 rebounds, and Price came off the bench for 14 points and nine boards.
The Musketeers (19-8, 11-3 Atlantic 10), who trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, outrebounded the bigger Minutemen 48-44, had 22 offensive rebounds, 10 steals and only committed 11 turnovers in 50 minutes.
They also came up with some big plays to extend the game.
Posey hit two free throws with two seconds left in regulation to tie it at 63. "I've always dreamed about being in a situation like that," he said. "I've seen so many players get the opportunity and not come through. I've been waiting for it. I didn't want to let myself or my teammates down."
Brown hit a short running jumper off the glass with 6.2 seconds remaining in the first extra period to tie it at 70. "I knew we didn't have that much time," he said. "I just wanted to get to the hole."
Xavier fell behind 17-7 after 61/2 minutes and spent the rest of the day playing catchup.
The Musketeers took their first lead on a Maurice McAfee three-pointer with 4:21 remaining. It went back and forth for the rest of regulation.
XU never led by more than two.
Its best chance to extend that came with 1:54 left in the second OT. With a 75-74 lead, Price went to the foul line for two shots, but missed them both.
UMass took the lead back on two free throws by Chris Kirkland.
"Neither team was going to quit," Brown said. "Everybody kept coming with punches. Every time we made a run, they made a run. We made a basket, they made a basket. That's the way it went for 50 minutes."
Massachusetts (12-14, 8-6) ended a two-game losing streak and kept alive its NIT chances.
Kirkland, coming off a career-high 26 points Wednesday at George Washington, led the Minutemen with 25 points and a career-high 13 rebounds.
Mack had 21 points and 10 rebounds, and Ketner added 20 points and 12 rebounds in one of his best games of the season.
It was the first time since Feb. 28, 1996 that UMass had three players collect double-doubles, and the first time since Jan. 20, 1996 that three players scored 20 or more points.
The Minutemen held XU to 36.7-percent shooting and had a season-high 11 blocks.
"That's how I thought we would be all year," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said.
"If we played like that all season, we wouldn't be in the position we're in now."
Said Prosser: "I didn't think we played that poorly, they just played better.
"It was more what they did than what we didn't do."
MHERST, Mass. - Lenny Brown came to Xavier known as a scorer. On Saturday, the senior guard became the school's all-time leader with 227 career steals.
Brown had three steals in a 78-77 double-overtime loss at Massachusetts, sending him past Anthony Hicks, who had 226 steals from 1979-83.
"The thing is, I came in as an offensive player, but they didn't know my attitude," Brown said. "I wanted to be a complete player, and that's what I've tried to be my whole career.
"(The record) wasn't something that I planned. It's a great accomplishment. I think if I would've been more aggressive at the beginning of the year, I could've had more. I was a little bit passive with my defense earlier in the season."
Brown set XU's single-season record with 81 steals last season, but teammate James Posey has 76 so far this season.
Big man walking
XU freshman Kevin Frey (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) played an aggressive game against UMass center Lari Ketner (6-10, 285), finishing with eight points and nine rebounds.
Ketner finished with 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting and 12 rebounds and grabbed several boards over Frey, who at times had him boxed out.
"He's big; he's strong." Frey said. "I didn't want to shy away from him."
At the end of the first overtime, Posey was limping badly after spraining his left ankle. He turned it again later but said after playing 49 minutes that he was fine.
"I twisted it a couple of times," he said. "But I was going to finish the game regardless. I wasn't coming out."
Posey collected his 12th double-double of the season and 27th of his career with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
Freshman Aaron Turner, suspended for Saturday's game, made the trip with the team but remained at the hotel for the game.
Saturday was Xavier's first overtime game since Jan. 14, 1998, at George Washington. XU's last multiple OT game was December 1996 at Akron; that went three extra periods.
The two overtimes didn't help Xavier's travel plans. The Musketeers had a 5:30p.m. flight out of Hartford, which is about an hour from UMass. At 3 p.m., they were still in the Mullins Center.
UMass is 34-20 playing on ESPN in the 1990s and 63-13 all-time at the Mullins Center. ... Brown moved into seventh place on Xavier's all-time scoring list (1,703 points), passing Nick Daniels (1,690) and trailing Brian Grant by 16. ... Posey moved into 18th place with 1,279 career points.
Seniors Brown, Gary Lumpkin and Posey play their final game at the Cincinnati Gardens on Wednesday when the Musketeers play host to Dayton (7 p.m.).
MHERST, Mass. - Xavier and Massachusetts played 50 minutes of basketball on Saturday, 50 minutes of raw energy where the outcome seemed to hang in the balance with each possession.
It was only fitting in a game with two exhilarating overtimes, that the final possession would settle matters. But unfortunately for the Musketeers, 50 minutes wasn't enough time and instead, XU (19-8, 11-3) was handed a 78-77 loss to UMass.
After UMass' Lari Ketner scored on an offensive rebound with 39 seconds remaining in the second overtime - with XU's James Posey clearly boxing him out - the Minutemen had a 78-77 lead.
Then Xavier had three chances to secure the victory.
After Ketner's basket, Xavier hit freshman Kevin Frey near the left baseline. He missed the shot but grabbed the rebound and kicked it to Lenny Brown on the left wing. Brown missed his shot and after a mad scrabble, UMass knocked it out of bounds with seven seconds remaining.
On the inbounds play, XU's Gary Lumpkin received the ball from Brown and drove the left side of the lane for a layup with two seconds remaining. The shot kissed off the rim and into the hands of James Posey who came flying through the lane for a two-handed dunk. Nevertheless, the dunk came just after the horn.
''We were half-a-second from winning the ball game,'' said Posey, softly.
The last play actually called for Brown to take the ball out, run behind a screen in the corner and pop a jumper. UMass didn't take the bait and covered Brown.
''They defended that well,'' Posey said.
So the ball, and the game, belonged to Lumpkin.
''I thought I had a pretty good look,'' he said. ''It was just one of those shots where I didn't know whether to bank it or shoot it straight in.''
Still, it was the best shot available.
''I'd rather have an uncontested layup,'' Prosser said. ''We got it to the rim. You can't get much better than your senior point guard taking it right to the rim.''
Said Brown: ''We played hard. We played hard enough to win but we didn't get a couple of bounces on the rim.''
The drama-filled ending was fitting for a game which featured March intensity from the opening tap. Possession to possession, breath to breath, both teams played with the fortitude and resolve of champions.
There was Brown, who finished with 23 points, and scored all seven of Xavier's points in the first overtime, including a runner in the lane with seven second left to send the game into the second overtime.
There was the aplomb of Posey, who sent the game into overtime by calmly hitting two free throws with two seconds remaining. UMass coach Bruiser Flint tried to ice Posey, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds, with a time out after the first try.
''That's what gave us a spark,'' Brown said. ''That showed great poise by him.''
Then there was Frey, who swallowed up the big rebounds, including a put-back off a Brown miss with 54.1 seconds left in the second overtime that gave Xavier its final lead, 77-76.
But UMass came up big as well.
Chris Kirkland, who scored a career high 26 points Wednesday at George Washington, led UMass with 25 points and at times carried the team with his short jumpers. Kirkland also had a career-high 13 rebounds.
Monty Mack carried the team in the first half with his 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Ketner pounded away on the inside with 20 points and 12 boards. Xavier played without 6-foot-7 freshman center Aaron Turner, who was suspended for Saturday's game and stayed at the team's hotel. Ketner took advantage.
''Sometimes we blocked him out and he still got (rebounds),'' Prosser.
Now Xavier remains in a tie with George Washington for first place in the A-10 West after Temple dismantled the Colonials on Saturday. Xavier has Dayton on Wednesday before taking on GW on the road on Feb. 27.
The Musketeers have to rebound quickly.
''It's frustrating,'' Prosser said. ''But you have to give them credit.''
MHERST - If Xavier forward James Posey had one more second, his put-back dunk would have given the Musketeers a dramatic victory in double overtime.
But time, and for once luck were on the side of the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team. The buzzer beat Posey and the Minutemen beat Xavier, 78-77 in two overtimes in front of 6,311 Saturday at the William D. Mullins Center.
"We stuck with it," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "Guys stepped up and made shots when we needed it. Guys got rebounds when we needed them. Guys did a great job. We're still fighting."
It was all smiles for Mike Babul and Winston Smith as they walk off the floor as winners.
Xavier coach Skip Prosser said the result wasn't a fluke.
"I thought UMass played well," he said. "I don't think we played that poorly, they just played better. That's why they won."
The Minutemen had a chance to win the game in regulation. With 32.2 seconds left Ketner went to the basket strong and laid the ball in off the glass and drew a foul in the process. He completed the three-point play to take UMass from down one point to up two at 63-61.
After Xavier's Lenny Brown missed a long jumper, Minuteman Winston Smith grabbed the rebound and got fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, but teammate Chris Kirkland grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Gary Lumpkin. But he too missed a front end with seven seconds left.
"We just tried to get back on defense (after the miss) and if it goes into overtime so be it," Ketner said. "We just weren't going to let them get any easy points."
Posey grabbed the rebound off Kirkland's miss and tried to hurry the ball up the floor for a desperation 3-pointer, but Smith fouled him.
"It makes you earn your paycheck," Flint said of the play. "He wasn't even across halfcourt yet."
Posey made both free throws to tie the game at 63-63 and Mack missed a last-second three to add five minutes to the clock.
Xavier drew first blood in overtime on a open-jumper by Brown. Monty Mack answered with a driving hoop in the lane. A pair of free throws by Kirkland extended the UMass lead to 69-65.
Brown's trey from the left corner brought the Musketeers within one with 41 seconds left at 69-68. Kirkland made one of two free throws four seconds later. Three Xavier players missed shots before the ball went out of bounds off UMass with 14 seconds left.
Off the inbounds Brown got into the lane and floated in the equalizer making it 70-70 with six seconds left. Charlton Clarke struggled to get the ball up court and was forced to heave an ill-fated shot at the buzzer that was well off the mark to bring on overtime No. 2.
Mack scored the Minutemen's first four points in overtime, but the Musketeers still led 75-74 with 2:12 left. Kirkland and Xavier's Kevin Frey traded baskets, keeping the visitors ahead 77-76 with just under a minute left.
UMass got the ball to Mack for an open shot, but it was off the mark. The rebound however bounced right to Ketner. In one motion he leapt toward the basket and tapped the ball back in to put the Minutemen ahead 78-77 with 41 ticks left on the clock.
"It came right to me and I just grabbed it and put it off the glass," Ketner said. "I just go it up quickly."
The Musketeers let the shot clock wind down as they tried to set up a game-winning shot. They punched the ball inside to Frey who missed, but the rebound went out of bounds off the Minutemen with seven seconds remaining.
This time Lumpkin drove into the lane but his shot bounced off the back rim and Posey was too late as UMass raised its arms in celebration.
"We got the ball right to the rim," Prosser said. "You can't get a much better one."
The Minutemen had three players with 20 or more points and three with double-doubles, two accomplishments UMass hadn't accomplished since 1996. Kirkland continued his spectacular week for the Minutemen (12-14, 8-6 A-10) finishing with a game-high 25 points and a career-high 13 rebounds, numbers that helped him share the Atlantic 10's Player of the Week award. Ketner was impressive as well with 20 points and a dozen rebounds, while Mack rounded out the triumvirate with 21 points and 10 boards.
Lari Ketner put in a big game with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Jerrey Roberts, Daily Hampshire Gazette, photo
"He made some big plays for us and had some big rebounds," Flint said. "It was his best game of the year by far."
Brown led the Musketeers (19-8, 11-3) with 23 points, while Posey scored 19 points and grabbed 12 off the glass to share the Player of the Week award with Kirkland.
UMass was impressive out of the gate opening a 17-7 lead, 6:30 into the game led by five points each from Ketner and Mack. Xavier brought the lead down to one at 28-27 with 42.2 left in the half, but Mack hit a three off a screen with 12 seconds left to put the Minutemen ahead 31-27 at the half.
They were able to stay ahead through most of the second half until a trey by Maurice McAfee with 4:21 left gave the Musketeers a 57-56 lead. The teams went back and forth until Posey's free throws forced overtime.
The Minutemen return to action tomorrow night when they battle La Salle at 9:30 p.m. in Philadelphia and close out their regular season on Sunday against Temple.
MHERST - Chris Kirkland has always been a regular on highlight reels.
Chris Kirkland continued to amaze with a 25-point, 13-rebound, 3 block performance.
But over the past couple of weeks the lifelong great athlete has crossed the line and evolved into a great basketball player.
That emergence was rewarded by Kirkland's selection as this week's Atlantic 10 Player of the Week on the strength of 25.5 points and 12.5 boards over the past seven days.
"He's played great," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "He's not afraid to shoot or drive to the basket. He's become a weapon."
Those are amazing numbers compared to his play as a freshman, sophomore and even earlier this season. In his last 14 games Kirkland has elevated his game to the tune of 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds.
"After watching the tape of Wednesday night (vs. George Washington) we knew he was capable of having that kind of a game," said Xavier coach Skip Prosser.
He's difficult to guard. Undersized at 6-foot-7, Kirkland has the blue-collar rebounding ability of a power-forward, but the quickness and handle of a small forward. In addition to honing his mid-range jump shot, he can now score with either hand and is impressive moving in midair.
"Chris is a different kind of threat at the four, because he can put the ball on the floor and blow by the bigger forwards," said senior center Lari Ketner. "He rebounds and keeps balls alive."
"My main job is defense and rebounding," Kirkland said. "But my offensive game is starting to come around. I feel better about my all-around game."
He has improved the timing of his jumping which has made him a better rebounder, while his improved passing and court vision have made him more valuable all over the court.
"(Chris) has lifted us a lot," said teammate Monty Mack. "We've seen him play this way in practice, but he used to be nervous for games. I think he's overcome the nervousness and went out there and played. He runs down loose balls. He steps in and takes charges. He's very active."
His improvement didn't happen by accident. Sto Rox (Pittsburgh) High School coach called Kirkland the hardest working player that ever played for him and he has lived up to that reputation at UMass. Flint regularly holds up Kirkland as an example of what can happen when hard work pays off.
"Here's a kid that his first year I was getting ready to send him home," Flint said. "Now he's the most improved player in the Atlantic 10. Chris has been playing fantastic. We talk about him being most improved player in the league, but he might be all-league."
It might be a little early for that, but if his improvement continues into next year the way it has this year, he'll certainly have a shot.
MHERST - After watching the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team overcome hurdle after hurdle Saturday, it was difficult not to wonder ...
Was this the team that so many experts thought it would be before the season began? The team that Sports Illustrated picked to be No. 9 and Athlon Sports said would advance to the final eight? Had the team that struggled against Davidson, Marshall etc. finally left in favor of the team that opened the season ranked in the top 25?
It sure looked that way in the overtime win against Xavier. If it was that team, it's hard not to also wonder just what the 1998-99 Minutemen could have been if this was the way UMass had played all season. Talk would be of where the Minutemen might be heading in the NCAA Tournament instead of whether things will be better next year.
"This is the team I thought we'd be all year," Flint said. "We needed big plays and they made baskets for us. We made big stops. If we'd play like that all year we wouldn't be in the position we're in right now."
"This is the team we thought we'd be," said leading scorer Monty Mack. "We played in spurts this year. Some games we showed up, some games we didn't. I do wish we played like this the whole season."
Lari Ketner looked like the All-America candidate that he had been touted to be. In addition to scoring 20 points and grabbbing 12 rebounds, Ketner hit his free throws down the stretch and hit the game-winning shot.
If it had been that Ketner all year mixed with the emergence of Chris Kirkland as an all-around great player, UMass might have been scary.
But their success Saturday came from more than just impressive individual performances. On too many occasions during this miserable season the Minutemen have hung their heads when adversity stung them and ended up losing as a result. But not this time.
They kept battling when the Musketeers unraveled a 10-point UMass lead. The Minutemen shook off a Winston Smith foul late in regulation that forced the first overtime and five Xavier points in less than a minute to force the second one.
When it became a registered trademark the phrase "Refuse to Lose" became an oft-ridiculed punchline, but the spirit that originally spawned it was alive in the Mullins Center Saturday.
"We stayed with it," Flint said. "Nobody put their heads down. Everybody in the huddle kept saying 'We're winning this game.' They stuck with it."
"What really hurt us is when we get down and guys put their heads down, instead of digging down and playing together," Kirkland said. "We did that tonight. We stuck together."
It might be short-lived. This season has proven that there are no certainties with the Minutemen and Tuesday could bring a disappointing loss at La Salle.
But their confidence is growing and when the Atlantic 10 Tournament commences next week, just knowing what UMass did against Xavier will make the Minutemen a team that nobody wants to play.
MHERST - It was a game worth remembering, a touch of Mullins Center magic in a season that's been anything but magical.
And with all due respect to the Kansas game in January, it ended with the best University of Massachusetts men's basketball win of the year. The 78-77 double-overtime victory over Xavier could have been won by the Minutemen in regulation, but there were plenty of chances to lose it, too, and UMass refused to let that happen.
"We stayed with it, nobody put their heads down, and guys stepped up and made big plays," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said after the win before 6,311. "We're still fighting."
UMass (12-14 overall, 8-6 Atlantic 10) won it when Lari Ketner (20 points, 12 rebounds, three of the Minutemen's season-high 11 blocks) scored on a putback of Monty Mack's missed shot with 39 seconds left in the second overtime.
Xavier (19-8, 11-3) had three shots to win in the final seconds, but they all failed. The last came when Gary Lumpkin's layup from the left side rolled out, and James Posey's dunk came just after time had expired and the horn had sounded.
Chris Kirkland (25 points, career-high 13 rebounds, three blocks) and Mack (21 points, career-high 10 rebounds) joined Ketner to give UMass three double-doubles in the same game for the first time since Marcus Camby, Donta Bright and Tyrone Weeks did it against St. Joseph's in 1996. That was also the year three Minutemen last scored 20 in a game, when Carmelo Travieso, Bright and Dana Dingle collaborated at Duquesne.
"This was a rewarding win," said Ketner, who played 48 minutes while Mack played all 50 and Kirkland logged 48. "It helps our confidence by knowing if we keep our heads up, good things can happen."
Flint said it was the type of gritty win he'd expected he'd see all season, and Kirkland agreed.
"For about half the season, we've wished we could start the season over so we need all of these right now," said the 6-foot-6 forward, who has 51 points and 25 rebounds in the last two games.
"I don't think we played that poorly, but they played better," said Xavier coach Skip Prosser, whose team has gone into overtime in three of its last four games against UMass. "Celebrate what they did."
Xavier senior guard Lenny Brown scored 23 points, but shot 9 for 28 and was held scoreless by Mack's defense over the last 18:46 of regulation. But Brown came up big in the first overtime, scoring all seven of Xavier's points. Five came in the last 41 seconds, including a layup with seven seconds left that tied it at 70.
UMass hurt itself at the line at the end of regulation, after Ketner's 3-point play with 32 seconds left had given the Minutemen a 63-61 lead. Winston Smith and Kirkland each missed the front end of one-and-ones with less than 10 seconds left, and Smith fouled Posey near midcourt with two seconds to go, giving Posey (19 points, 12 rebounds) a chance to tie it at 63.
The Minutemen led 15-5 after five minutes, 31-27 at halftime and 52-44 with nine minutes left. But Posey led an 8-0 Xavier run that tied the game, and neither team led by more than three until UMass led 69-65 with less than a minute left in the first overtime.
Brown's 3-point basket made it 69-68 with 41 seconds left, and after a Kirkland free throw, Brown's layup with seven seconds left made it 70-70 and forced another overtime. "In the past, we might have put our heads down," Ketner said. "This time, we tried to stick together."
MHERST - University of Massachusetts head coach Bruiser Flint lobbied last week to get guard Monty Mack named Atlantic 10 player of the week. He may not have to work as hard to get Chris Kirkland the same honor.
Kirkland, a junior from Timmonsville, S.C., had his second consecutive double-double, a game-high 25 points and a career- and game-high 13 rebounds in UMass' 78-77 double overtime win over Xavier yesterday at Mullins Center.
Not bad for a player who doesn't have any offensive plays run for him.
"Basically that's my job at the four (power forward spot), rebound and play defense, and tonight I was able to get some rebounds on the offensive end," Kirkland said. "I don't get any plays run for me. If you want, I can get the playbook."
Kirkland was coming off a career-best 26-point, 12-rebound performance in the Minutemen's 78-72 loss to George Washington Wednesday.
Xavier didn't see much of Kirkland last year since he only played 11 minutes and scored two points with three rebounds in the only meeting between the schools. But his performance didn't surprise Musketeers coach Skip Prosser.
"After watching Wednesday, and we did watch, we knew he was capable of that," Prosser said.
Kirkland had eight points and six rebounds in the first 20 minutes. He hit 4 of 6 field goal attempts. In the second half Kirkland was 5 for 6 from the field, 7 for 11 from the foul line and had seven rebounds, four on the offensive end.
He also had three of UMass' season-high 11 blocked shots, had three assists, a steal and one turnover in 48 minutes.
"We talked about him being the most improved player in the league; he might be all-league," Flint said. "Now he's getting more confident driving the ball and taking that 15-footer."
Kirkland, who has four double-doubles this season, showed three facets of his offensive game midway through the second half. First, he drove to the basket and scored with his left hand. Second, he followed with an offensive rebound and putback. Third, he scored on a floater in the lane.
"I feel real comfortable out there rebounding with Chris," said UMass center Lari Ketner, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. "I know if I have one side, he has the other."
Kirkland had six of the 14 offensive rebounds by UMass, the second straight game in which he had six offensive boards. He also hit 5 of 6 free throws in overtime.
"He's going out and working on his game," Flint said. "Every time we talk, I use him as an example because his first year I was ready to send him home. For a year and a half, he was an afterthought."
Now the 6-foot-6 forward is Flint's example of what can happen through hard work. But will Kirkland have any plays drawn up for him?
"I don't know about that," Flint said. "He's still the fourth option."
MHERST - The day began when one of those TV announcers, using hyperbole as casually as some of us use verbs, called Lari Ketner's season-long slump "one of the mysteries of the millennium."
That's pretty strong stuff, considering we haven't yet solved a few other major issues in the last 999 years, the meaning of life being one that comes to mind.
Everything about Ketner tends to be exaggerated, so let's go out on a limb after yesterday's 78-77 double-overtime basketball win over Xavier at Mullins Center. It was, according to coach Bruiser Flint and anyone else who wants to be fair, Ketner's best and most clutch performance of the year - a game in which the 6-foot-10 center seemed to rise above not only the Xavier defenders in the post, but also his own fears.
"I just wanted to be a threat out there," Ketner said after scoring 20 points with 12 rebounds. "I tried to cut hard and post up hard. I just wanted to be a big target."
Nothing to worry about there. Other than Flint, there's no bigger target when people start assessing blame for this season. Sometimes it seems excessively personal, though to be honest, Ketner has also been his own worst enemy more often than not.
If you believe in conspiracy theories, you'll go along with the one circulating these days about how Ajmal Basit somehow got into Ketner's head, damaging Ketner's fragile psyche enough to throw it completely out of whack. Ketner calls Basit a friend, which doesn't explain why Ketner has smiled more in the four games since Basit got thrown off the team than in the 87 (over three years) when they were teammates.
But Basit can't be blamed for Wednesday's game, when Ketner was benched in the second half against George Washington. It was the latest chapter in a season that has had more downs than ups.
Yesterday, though was much different. Chris Kirkland was tremendous and Monty Mack was very good, but most of the big plays down the stretch involved the man for whom the term "much-maligned" fits more snugly than Gucci shoes, and who has had to endure being called "underachieving" more often than he's been called "Lari."
Ketner wasn't perfect. He shot 8 for 17 and walked with 1:05 left in regulation, an avoidable turnover that could have cost UMass the game.
But he also blocked three shots, scored on a 3-point play with 32 seconds left in the second half, and tipped two loose balls to teammates in the final seconds of regulation. When it mattered most, he was magnificent.
He played 48 minutes and hit two free throws to break a 65-65 tie in the first overtime, momentarily disproving the belief that when a UMass guy shoots a free throw, we know we're witnessing one of the most exciting plays in sports.
One more thing. With UMass losing 77-76, Ketner jumped up and grabbed Monty Mack's miss with 39 seconds left in the second overtime, putting it back in before his feet returned to the floor.
That was the winning basket, the fitting climax to a courageous performance by someone whose inner fortitude has been the source of some debate. It doesn't turn a disappointing season into a good one, but that's not the point.
If he's to shoulder the blame for the bad times, give him some credit for the good times. His team could not have won without him. If Ketner's problems are big enough to constitute the mystery of the milennium, his triumphs should at least entitle him to some satisfaction for the next couple of days.
|at the Mullins Center|
XAVIER (77) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Frey 40 3-9 2-2 7-9 1 4 8 Posey 49 6-13 7-7 2-12 2 4 19 Butler 5 0-3 0-0 0-0 0 1 0 L Brown 47 9-28 3-4 0-4 0 2 23 Lumpkin 37 2-6 1-2 0-0 1 2 5 Mcafee 18 1-4 1-2 0-1 1 1 4 Harris 22 2-4 0-0 4-6 0 1 4 Price 32 6-12 2-4 5-9 1 3 14 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 250 29-79 16-21 18-41 6 18 77 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.367, FT-.762. 3-Point Goals: 3-11, .273 (Posey 0-1, L Brown 2-7, Mcafee 1-2, Price 0-1). Team rebounds: 7. Blocked shots: 4 (Posey 2, Harris 2). Turnovers: 11 (Harris 3, Posey 3, Frey 2, L Brown, Lumpkin, Mcafee). Steals: 10 (L Brown 3, Price 3, Posey 2, Frey, Lumpkin). MASSACHUSETTS (78) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Kirkland 48 9-12 7-11 6-13 3 2 25 Babul 43 1-4 0-0 1-3 5 5 3 Ketner 48 8-17 4-4 4-12 1 2 20 Clarke 43 3-7 0-0 0-1 6 3 8 M Mack 50 9-24 2-2 2-10 0 1 21 Cruz 6 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 1 0 Smith 10 0-1 1-3 0-2 0 2 1 Rhymer 2 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 250 30-66 14-20 13-41 15 16 78 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.455, FT-.700. 3-Point Goals: 4-15, .267 (Babul 1-1, Clarke 2-5, M Mack 1-9). Team rebounds: 3. Blocked shots: 11 (Kirkland 3, Ketner 3, Babul 2, M Mack 2, Rhymer). Turnovers: 15 (Clarke 4, Smith 4, Babul 2, M Mack 2, Cruz, Ketner, Kirkland). Steals: 4 (Ketner 2, Kirkland, M Mack). ____________________________________________ Xavier 27 36 7 7 - 77 Massachusetts 31 32 7 8 - 78 ____________________________________________ Technical fouls: None. A: 6,311. Officials: Larry Lembo, Joe Demayo, Bryan Kersey.