EW YORK - UMass lost its security blanket when a flu-addled Monty Mack, running a 101-degree temperature, fainted on the bus ride over to Rose Hill Gymnasium last night.
But for a team that has unspeakable trouble filling in behind their leader when he's active, taking over with Mack on the bench during last night's 81-72 victory over Fordham was like sheer freedom.
Center Kitwana Rhymer, playing in front of a hometown Bronx crowd, responded by scoring 12 of a career-high 19 points over the last 4:27. Shannon Crooks, given even more of a green light than usual, scored a career-high 29, including UMass' last 13 first-half points.
The Minutemen shot an atypical 54 percent from the floor. But there was also a lesson in their improbable run to a 13-11 record, including a 7-4 Atlantic 10 mark that has them tied with St. Bonaventure for second place in the Eastern Division.
``We showed that without Monty, we can still get it done,'' said Chris Kirkland, the steadying force last night with 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and six steals. ``I think the guys have gained some of the confidence, and know they can score.''
The Minutemen's supporting cast certainly made its coach a believer, though Bruiser Flint has also been in this position before.
``I told the guys after the game that this is the biggest win since I've (been a head coach),'' he said. ``We lose the second leading scorer in the league and still come out and do this?
``We just told them before the game that they couldn't be afraid.''
Fordham coach Bob Hill, NBA veteran that he is, certainly wasn't fooled upon hearing roughly an hour before gametime that Mack wouldn't play.
As he often does, the coach reached back to his days coaching the Indiana Pacers, and in particular the legendary Game 5 of a 1991 first-round playoff series against the Celtics. Larry Bird fractured a cheekbone during a first half fall, left for the trainer's room, and returned to a roaring Boston Garden crowd with enough time left in the second half to lead the Celtics to a series-closing win.
``I wrote on the board at halftime, `He will be back,' so not having Monty Mack out there tonight didn't exactly bother me,'' said Hill.
``If anything, I would have preferred that Monty Mack played, because now these other guys realize they're going to touch the ball more, and there will be more shots.''
But as usual for the Minutemen, even last night's circumstances nearly weren't enough.
They took a 47-39 lead with 13:23 left, and appeared ready to build the margin further when freshman Micah Brand blocked a shot by Fordham forward Duke Freeman-McKamey. But when referee Joe DeMayo whistled him for a foul, Brand jumped around hard enough to also get whistled for a technical.
The result was a six-point Fordham swing, with McKamey and Scott Harmatuck hitting two free throws apiece and Alejandro Olivares converting a layup on the ensuing possession.
Olivares came back to drain an 18-footer for a 47-47 tie and hit a free throw on the next possession to give Fordham (11-13, 4-8) a 48-47 lead with 11:10 left.
``The thing I liked about what we did tonight was that every time they came back on us, we pushed the lead back up again,'' said Flint.
And so they did. With Kirkland scoring six points as part of a 10-0 burst, the Minutemen moved back into a 61-53 lead with 6:58 left.
Fordham answered with a 4-0 run, only to get flattened when the Minutemen came back with a 6-0 burst.
With Rhymer taking control underneath, the Minutemen managed to shoot just well enough from the free-throw line over the last three minutes.
Mack, who told the coaching staff that he felt much better after fainting on the bus, later reported that his fever had broken.
For once he could relax, though. This time the responsibility wasn't his to carry.
EW YORK — Start by subtracting the 20 points a game the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team receives on average from Monty Mack, who sat out last night with symptoms of the flu.
Add in the six points Fordham scored in one rapid second-half sequence that lifted the Rams back into the game. And keep in mind that UMass was facing an improved opponent, guided by former NBA coach Bob Hill, on the road.
Last night's 81-72 UMass victory at Rose Hill Gymnasium was important, improbable and all things considered, pretty wonderful, too.
"It was the biggest win we've had since I've been coach," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint, who decided about an hour before game time that Mack's 101-degree fever made it impossible for him to play.
"I knew Shannon Crooks would get Monty's points, because he'd take enough shots," Flint said after UMass rose to 13-11 and 7-4 in the Atlantic 10. "I just hoped we'd get someone to make up Shannon's points, and we did."
Crooks, who began his college career in New York at St. John's, scored a career-high 29 points. Center Kitwana Rhymer, who played high school ball in the Bronx, shook off a sore ankle for a career-high 19 in only 24 minutes.
"I would have preferred Mack to play," Hill said after Fordham fell to 11-13, 4-8. "Other guys knew they'd get more touches, and they played harder."
"Monty and I are close, and I wanted to go out and play like he would have played," Crooks said after shooting 12 for 24. "I really wanted this one. This is how I know I can play."
With Mack unavailable in the backcourt, Crooks played 39 minutes and Jonathan DePina played all 40. Only seven UMass players were used.
"I knew Jonathan could go all 40, but I was concerned about Shannon," Flint said. "Monty wanted to play, but there was no way."
UMass jumped to a 10-0 lead, fell behind 28-22 but retook the lead 35-32 at halftime. Crooks scored the Minutemen's last 13 points of the half.
UMass owned a 47-39 lead when a technical foul with 12:54 left helped Fordham get back in the game. Freshman center Micah Brand was called for a personal after blocking Duke Freeman-McKamey's shot, then was hit with a technical after reacting.
Fordham hit all four free throws and Alejandro Olivares hit a layup, providing most of a 9-0 run that gave the Rams a 48-47 lead. But UMass answered with a 14-5 run, capped by Crooks' layup for a 61-53 edge with 6:50 left.
UMass forward Chris Kirkland scored 17 points with a team-high seven rebounds in 39 minutes. He also went 8 for 9 from the line for a team that shot 54.7 percent from the floor, but only 50 percent (17 of 34) from the stripe.
Freeman-McKamey (19 points, 11 rebounds) and Bevon Robin (18 points) led Fordham. Olivares scored all 13 of his points after halftime.
UMass remained tied with St. Bonaventure for second place in the A-10 East. Crooks saluted DePina, whose seven points included two 3-pointers. "When he comes into a game cold, it's tough sometimes for him to get in his rhythm," Crooks said. "But deep down, Jonathan knows he can play, and the coaches know it, too."
EW YORK — Bruiser Flint recalls a game many University of Massachusetts men's basketball fans may have forgotten, and he compared it in significance to last night's 81-72 victory over Fordham.
"I think one of the biggest games we had in the Final Four year was when we beat Southern Cal," said Flint, recalling that 78-63 win at the 1995 Rainbow Classic. "Marcus Camby was injured, and we had to play without him. But guys really stepped up and played."
That's what happened last night when Monty Mack developed a fever of 101 degrees and missed the Atlantic 10 Conference game at Rose Hill Gymnasium. The league's second-leading scorer watched the game in sweats from the bench, but Shannon Crooks (29 points) and Kitwana Rhymer (19) delivered career-high performances in his absence.
"Kit played on a sprained ankle, Jonathan DePina hit some big 3s, and Chris Kirkland did the job like he always does," said Crooks, who missed his first six shots, then hit 12 of his last 18. "We can't just wait for Monty."
Mack had wanted to play, and Flint said he wanted to be involved even from the bench.
"Monty wants to be a coach," Flint said. "He had all these suggestions, but I told him just to sit down."
Camby missed the 1995 USC game with a bruised knee. Losing Mack seemed at least as daunting to this UMass team, since Mack is the Minutemen's only proven perimeter shooter.
But Kirkland scored 17 points from his power forward position, while DePina and Crooks shouldered the backcourt load for a team that had no other scholarship guards available.
Dwayne Early of Springfield, who is not on scholarship, was the only other guard in uniform and didn't play. Small forward Winston Smith filled in at guard for one minute for Crooks, while DePina played the entire game.
Micah Brand's technical foul resulted in six Fordham points in the second half. Flint says Brand didn't say anything.
"I asked the referee, and the ref said he danced (after being called for a foul on a blocked-shot attempt)," Flint said. "I just told the guys to keep their composure (after the technical) and not lose the game because we lost our cool."
Under first-year coach and former UMass assistant John Robic, Youngstown State (11-12, 8-4) trails Southern Utah by a half-game in the Mid-Continent Conference. If Youngstown State wins its conference tournament and the automatic NCAA tournament berth, Penguins assistant Derek Kellogg will reach the tournament with his third team.
Kellogg made it with UMass as a player from 1992-95, and George Mason as a coach last year.
Hank Downey of Cathedral High School is a freshman walk-on for Fordham. The 6-foot-4 guard from Springfield, who spent a year at Suffield Academy, didn't play last night and has been in five games this season (one rebound, one point).
Last night was a homecoming of sorts for Rhymer, who grew up in the Virgin Islands but attended St. Raymond's High in the Bronx, N.Y.
"I've got history in this gym," said Rhymer, who once lost a high school championship game at Rose Hill. Rhymer scored six points in UMass' opening 10-0 run.
RONX, N.Y. - With its best player sidelined, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team displayed uncharacteristic poise and heart as the Minutemen held off Fordham, 81-72, Wednesday night at Rose Hill Gymnasium.
With senior guard Monty Mack suffering from a fever and other flu symptoms, sophomore guard Shannon Crooks turned in the best effort of his UMass career to carry the Minutemen, finishing with 29 points.
"It was very satisfying," said senior co-captain Chris Kirkland, who had 17 points and seven rebounds. "It showed guys we could play together even though we didn't have our leading scorer. We showed we can still come out and win as long as we play together."
Flint was proud of his players after the game.
"I think this is one of my biggest wins as a coach," he said. "When you lose one of the best players in the league and you don't really have time to prepare for his absence ... Everybody really stepped up and played well."
Mack tried to talk Flint into letting him play, but the combination of Mack's 101-degree fever and the fact that he fainted on the bus on the way to the game, made Flint's decision simple.
"He wasn't getting on the court," Flint said.
It made prospects somewhat grim for UMass. After all, Mack was averaging 19.7 points per game and has accounted for just under a third of all of UMass' scoring this season. He had hit more 3-pointers than the rest of the team combined.
Entering the game, the Minutemen were 1-2 in games when Mack didn't start. Perhaps more disturbing, they were 5-6 in games that his replacement, Jonathan DePina, did start.
But DePina was solid, playing all 40 minutes and scoring seven points. DePina had played less than 20 minutes in each of UMass' last six games.
"He came out today and showed what he's capable of doing," Crooks said of his backcourt mate. "He just needs to keep believing in himself."
With Mack watching from the bench in sweats, Flint was confident that Crooks would be able to pick up Mack's scoring numbers. The question in the coach's mind was, who would pick up Crooks' numbers?
The answer was Kitwana Rhymer. The junior center overcame mild early foul trouble and an ankle injury to contribute 13 second-half points. He finished with a career-high 19.
"I knew we would give Shannon enough shots to score points," Flint said. "The thing was, would somebody else take up Shannon's points? Kit made some big plays for us. He scored inside and had some big blocks, big rebounds. He'd been struggling so he needed to break out."
Playing like he did in the Bronx, where he played his high school ball, was extra special for Rhymer.
"I got a lot of history in this gym," said Rhymer, who is an alum of nearby St. Raymond's. "In high school we lost the championship here."
The Minutemen took an early 10-0 lead, but Fordham answered with a 12-3 run to keep it tight. Led by Duke Freeman-McKamey (19 points, 11 rebounds off the bench) the Rams looked like they were gathering momentum as they pulled ahead, 28-22.
But then Crooks literally took over. He had been off the mark early, missing his first six shots, but he seemed unguardable late in the first half, scoring the Minutemen's final 13 points.
Led by another Crooks-heavy spurt, the Minutemen surged ahead, 47-39, after intermission. But after Micah Brand was called for a foul on what he thought was a clean block, and then for a technical for expressing his frustration, the Rams got right back into the game.
Freeman-McKamey and Scott Harmatuck sank the four free throws, and on the ensuing possession, Alejandro Olivares dropped in a layup for a six-point swing to make it 47-45.
The Argentinian import added a jumper and a free throw to cap a 9-0 run that gave the home team a 48-47 lead.
The teams went back and forth until a Bevon Robin 3-pointer gave Fordham (11-13, 4-8) its final lead of the game at 53-51 with 9:44 left.
But Kirkland and Crooks had an answer. Six points from Kirkland and four from Crooks comprised a 10-0 run that made it 61-53, putting UMass ahead to stay.
A Rhymer tip-in on an off-the-mark alley-oop pass with 1.3 seconds left punctuated the win.
By the end of the game, even Mack's health seemed to be buoyed by his teammates' play.
"He was all right," Flint said. "He wanted to be a coach. He wanted to give suggestions and things like that. I was like 'Yo, man, go sit down' "
The win kept UMass (13-11, 7-4) in a tie for second place in the Atlantic 10 East race with St. Bonaventure, which beat Rhode Island, 64-54, last night.
The Minutemen will face St. Joseph's Saturday at 4 p.m. Game tickets call for a 2 p.m. start, but the time was changed to 4 p.m. to accommodate TV.
RONX, N.Y. - When Shannon Crooks left Everett for St. John's and the Big Apple three Septembers ago, he dreamed about having nights like the one he had last night.
But in a year that included broken promises from coach Fran Fraschilla, the death of his father and his eventual transfer to the University of Massachusetts, few of Crooks' dreams were realized.
More than a year later, in his first game in New York City since leaving the Red Storm, Crooks gave New Yorkers a glimpse of what might have been.
With Monty Mack, the Atlantic 10's second-leading scorer, sidelined by the flu, UMass coach Bruiser Flint had no choice but to hand the car keys to Crooks. With old friends from his St. John's days looking on, Crooks stepped on the gas and was brilliant.
He was the offensive force that UMass fans dreamed he'd be when Crooks was still sitting out his mandatory year due to transferring.
He scored a career-high 29 points last night and did it in a variety of ways, mixing 3-pointers, layups, pullup jumpers and dunks to frustrate the Fordham defense.
"I would say so," Crooks said when asked if it was his best collegiate game. "I took the open looks. I don't think I rushed anything today. This is how I know I can play, night in and night out. I just have to get into my rhythm."
After missing his first six shots of the game, Crooks heated up late in the first half. With UMass trailing 28-22, he stuffed home a dunk off a Winston Smith steal.
It started a 13-4 run by Crooks - yes, all by Crooks - that closed the first half.
Crooks followed the dunk with a jumper on the baseline and then a wide-open 3-pointer in the corner to put UMass ahead, 29-28. Scott Harmatuck answered with a scoop layup that put the home team back ahead, 30-29. Crooks sank one of two free throws to tie it, but Harmatuck hit another jumper to make it 32-30. Still, Crooks had the last word.
He swished a deep three from the corner and scored driving to the hoop with 12.3 seconds left, giving UMass a 35-32 halftime edge.
Crooks followed his first-half performance with an even better second one. He scored eight points in a 10-0 Minuteman run early in the second half that gave UMass a 47-39 advantage.
Fordham battled back to the lead, 53-51, but Crooks delivered four points in a 10-0 run that put UMass ahead to stay.
"He's been playing a lot better," Flint said. "He's been playing within himself. He's made us a much better team."
Crooks said Mack was an inspiration for his play.
"Monty wasn't feeling too well," Crooks said. "Me and Mont are real close. So I said I'm going to go out and play for him and play like he would play. He was pumping me up on the bench."
Playing as well as he did, in New York, exorcised some old demons.
"It's really satisfying," Crooks said. "I couldn't ask for anything else. A couple friends from St. John's were here to watch the game."
A loss would have dropped the Minutemen to .500 with tough games remaining, a precarious place for a team with postseason aspirations.
With that in mind, it's not an overstatement to say that Crooks' individual effort might have saved UMass' season.
Crooks downplayed it, however, saying, "If I had scored just 15 points or something and we still won, I would have still been satisfied."
MASSACHUSETTS (81) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Kirkland 39 4-9 8-9 3-7 4 3 17 Babul 31 2-4 0-3 1-4 2 2 4 Rhymer 24 7-8 5-7 2-4 1 3 19 Depina 40 2-5 1-5 0-3 3 2 7 Crooks 39 12-24 2-8 3-4 2 1 29 Smith 10 0-0 1-2 0-0 2 1 1 Brand 17 2-3 0-0 1-2 1 3 4 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 29-53 17-34 10-24 15 15 81 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.547, FT-.500. 3-Point Goals: 6-11, .545 (Kirkland 1-1, Depina 2-3, Crooks 3-7). Team rebounds: 4. Blocked shots: 7 (Kirkland 3, Crooks 2, Rhymer, Depina). Turnovers: 16 (Depina 4, Babul 3, Crooks 3, Kirkland 3, Brand, Rhymer, Smith). Steals: 14 (Kirkland 6, Crooks 4, Smith 2, Depina, Rhymer). FORDHAM (72) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Johnson 16 0-4 0-0 1-2 2 2 0 Pugh 7 0-1 0-0 1-2 0 3 0 Harris 40 5-14 0-0 0-3 2 3 11 Robin 39 7-12 3-6 1-2 5 5 18 Harmatuk 29 3-5 2-2 0-1 1 3 8 Olivares 23 6-8 1-2 2-3 0 3 13 Kuchinsky 15 1-2 0-0 1-4 1 4 3 Freeman-mckame 31 8-12 3-4 7-11 1 3 19 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 30-58 9-14 13-28 12 26 72 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.517, FT-.643. 3-Point Goals: 3-13, .231 (Harris 1-6, Robin 1-4, Harmatuk 0-1, Kuchinsky 1-2). Team rebounds: 6. Blocked shots: 7 (Freeman-mckamey 2, Olivares 2, Pugh, Robin, Kuchinsky). Turnovers: 22 (Johnson 4, Robin 4, Freeman-mckamey 3, Harmatuk 3, Kuchinsky 3, Olivares 2, Pugh 2, Harris). Steals: 9 (Robin 3, Harmatuk 2, Harris 2, Freeman-mckamey, Olivares). __________________________________ Massachusetts 35 46 - 81 Fordham 32 40 - 72 __________________________________ Technical fouls: Massachusetts 1 (Brand). A: 3,018. Officials: George Demos, Gene Steratore, David Day.