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Good start for UMass: Minutemen knock off Iona, 85-77
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 11/21/1999

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. - Jeff Ruland leaned forward and exhaled.

He wanted this game. As the greatest player in Iona history, Ruland understands now, as a coach, how vital it can be to bring a name opponent into a small campus gym like the Mulcahy Center.

In that respect, his Gaels' 85-77 season-opening loss to UMass last night was necessary for that long road in establishing a national program.

Imagine that. Some people still think of UMass as a national-caliber outfit.

Micah Brand battles for the rock in his first collegiate game.
No wonder that Bruiser Flint and his players needed this one. Forget, for a moment, that they bounce from here to a game against defending national champion UConn in Storrs, Conn. tomorrow night.

Iona beat the Minutemen like few other teams last season - in Amherst.

Last night's performance, with Monty Mack scoring a game-high 21 points after only half a week of practice as the result of recovery from a broken foot and Mike Babul ignoring his sore back long enough to limit Iona star Tariq Kirksay to five second-half points, was the sort of complete game Flint rarely received from his charges last year.

Check that. Last night's second half was as complete as this team can get. Last night's first half was a horror show that resulted in a 43-38 Iona lead, courtesy of 15 points from Kirksay and some effective crashing by the Gaels front line with UMass center Kitwana Rhymer (12 points, seven rebounds) on the bench with foul trouble.

``To be honest, Iona beat us a lot worse than UConn last year,'' said Flint. ``We watched the tape of that game for the first time last night. We didn't do that after the game last year, because my coaches were worried that I might strangle someone if we did.''

There was no such problem last night, of course.

The Minutemen made virtually every necessary play in the second half, from hitting important free throws to getting the ball in the hands of the right player - in most cases Mack.

But UMass' offensive leader wasn't the only one turning in big plays last night.

Jonathan DePina, who started in place of Mack because of that sore foot, ran the offense down the stretch with a calmness rarely evident in his game during the last two years.

Flint called his game-tying 3-pointer with 14:47 left in the game the big play of the game. DePina (11 points, team-high four assists) also hit a jumper from the baseline to seal it with 1:40 left.

But the game's single biggest swing was turned in by forward Chris Kirkland (15 points) who, after stealing the ball from Terry Small, cruised in for a fast-break hoop. Small knocked him into the backet support on the play - a hard foul that was ruled intentional - and Kirkland responded by hitting both free throws. UMass also retained possession and got a Shannon Crooks (11 points) jumper from the key for a six-point swing and a 64-56 lead with 9:24 left.

The Minutemen pulled out to a 70-60 lead before the Gaels, starting with a Phil Grant trey, started to bite back.

Iona's Dyree Wilson, with his teammates pulling the ball off the glass, converted off the break with a short jumper to cut UMass' edge to 70-67 with 4:15 left.

Ailing Babul shuts down Gaels star
UMass Notebook
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald, 11/21/1999

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. - Mike Babul admittedly didn't think he would see 30 minutes of action last night - virtually all of it within two inches of Tariq Kirksay's chest.

But as the Minuteman most likely to draw the other team's big scorer, Attleboro's Babul was rushed into extra duty last night despite the fact he is recovering from a sore back.

The result was a five-point second half from the Iona star, who started with a 15-point first half, leaving UMass coach Bruiser Flint with only one halftime decision.

``I was a little surprised at how much I played, but once Kirksay started going off, I knew I was going to be out there quite a bit in the second half,'' said Babul, who subsequently earned another fan.

``He played great defense in the second half,'' said Kirksay. ``Everywhere I went, he was there. I tried to work hard to get open, but he worked hard to stay with me. Their goal was to stop me in the second half, and they went out and did that.''

Mack hits 1,000

Monty Mack went into last night's game only needing 15 points to score his 1,000th point, and he hit the milestone with a double-pump jumper from the lane with 11:25 left. He finished with 21 points - the senior guard's 17th career game with at least 20 points.

Considering that Mack started practicing Wednesday after sitting out the fall with a broken foot, Iona coach Jeff Ruland considered the guard's performance somewhat remarkable.

``Monty Mack sat out for five weeks, and my God, I wonder what he would have been like if he practiced,'' said Ruland.

One streak came to an end last night, however. Mack, who came off the bench for the first time in a UMass uniform, had started in 62 straight games.

UMass isn't corny

Flint doesn't want Temple's John Chaney to get all the credit when it comes to managing a team's hairstyle.

The UMass coach demanded equal time upon hearing that Chaney ordered his players to avoid the allure of cornrows - those tight-to-the-scalp braids that have popped up across the country in honor of Allen Iverson and Latrell Sprewell, the style's chief adherents.

``I've got a no-cornrows rule, too,'' said the traditionally close-cropped Flint. ``My guys have to be neat. If you're not in uniform and you're at a game, you have to wear a tie.''

Iona Falters in the Second Half
By Ron Dicker, The New York Times, 11/21/1999

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- The season began promisingly enough Saturday night for Tariq Kirksay, the player the Iona men's basketball team will be counting on to improve last season's 16-14 record.

Monty Mack pokes the ball away.
Kirksay, a senior forward, scored 15 points, hauled down 8 rebounds and lighted up the sold-out Mulcahy Center with his infectious smile in the first half against Massachusetts. But his game and grin disappeared in the second half, and he managed just five free throws. The Gaels found themselves short of scoring punch and lost, 85-77.

"I feel that I let them down," said Kirksay, who finished with 20 points but attempted just two shots in the second half. "I feel that being a leader, I should be the player that steps up, and be the guy to demand the ball."

UMass received a game-high 21 points from guard Monty Mack.

Kirksay, who had made 6 of 11 shots while Massachusetts rotated defenders on him, became a nonfactor once UMass's defensive specialist, Mike Babul, began to blanket him with five minutes left in the first half.

The Gaels received sporadic bursts from others in the second half, but nothing sustained. Guard Phil Grant scored 14 points, and Dyree Wilson added 13.

The Minutemen pushed ahead four times before the game's pivotal sequence, with the score tied at 56-56. UMass's Monty Mack started it with a layup, then Chris Kirkland stole the ball at Iona's end and sped the length of the court for a layup with Iona's Jermaine Small wrapped around his waist. The layup went in, Kirkland made both free throws off the intentional foul, and the former St. John's player Shannon Crooks drilled a jumper.

UMass led by 64-56 with 9 minutes 17 seconds to go.

Wilson closed the lead to 70-67 on a jump shot with 4:12 seconds to go, but Babul answered with a free throw. The Gaels never got closer, and Kirksay was left to wonder what happened to his better half.

Basketball: UMass runs away from Iona
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 11/21/1999

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. It was a game advertised as the opening act for an exciting new offense, but the victory was also made possible by defense from a familiar source.

"I'm a little sore right now, but I'll be fine," said University of Massachusetts senior forward Mike Babul, who missed almost the entire preseason, but put the clamps on Iona forward Tariq Kirksay last night, helping the Minutemen rally for a satisfying 85-77 opening-night men's basketball win at the Mulcahy Campus Center.

"I just tried to deny him in the post and push him out to about 12 or 15 feet," Babul said. "He's a different player out there."

Babul has been out with a muscle strain in his back, but he started last night and was called upon to handle Kirksay after Iona's 6-foot-6 senior had scored 15 first-half points, mostly against UMass forward Chris Kirkland. Kirksay wound up with 20, and UMass rallied from a 47-38 deficit to take a 70-60 lead with 5:53 left.

While Babul shored up the defense, Monty Mack also delivered a performance beyond what UMass might have expected. Mack missed almost the entire preseason with a stress fracture in his left foot, but scored 21 points and became the 34th UMass player to reach 1,000 in his career.

Mack passed the milestone with a short jumper that gave UMass a 56-54 lead. Mack has 1,006 career points, and played 31 minutes last night, even though the injury caused him to be kept out of the starting lineup for the first time in his career.

For UMass, there's little time to savor a victory that didn't come easily. Tomorrow night at Storrs, Conn., the Minutemen play defending national champion Connecticut, but UMass coach Bruiser Flint said the nature of last night's win was an encouraging prelude.

"Just about everybody contributed, and we made big plays when we needed to make them," Flint said. "I didn't want to put Mike on Kirksay, because his back had been hurting him. But everybody in the country knows we put him on the other team's best man, and I had to do it."

"Babul is not the fastest or the strongest player, but he's the smartest," Kirksay said. "They didn't do anything special on me defensively in the second half. But he's special."

A key moment in the UMass comeback came with 9:38 left, when Kirkland broke free for a layup with the Minutemen leading 58-56. The UMass forward made the basket, and Iona forward Jermaine Small was called for a flagrant foul that sent Kirkland to the line for two shots.

He made both, UMass kept possession because of the call and Shannon Crooks hit a jumper than made it 64-56. In essence, Kirkland's layup became a six-point play, and even though Iona came to within 70-67 on a 7-0 run, the Minutemen never looked back.

Kirkland scored 15 points and Kitwana Rhymer had a career-high 12 despite playing only 11 minutes because of foul trouble. Crooks scored 11 in his first game for the Minutemen, and Jonathan DePina also had 11, including a huge jumper than made it 75-69 with 1:37 left.

When Iona scored the first two baskets of the second half, the Gaels again led by nine, but UMass came roaring back with the fast-paced style it has planned this season, as well as a better effort in the half-court game.

The Minutemen also owned a 28-16 edge in second-half rebounding.

UMass opens with win at Iona
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 11/22/1999

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. - With 9:36 remaining in the game and the University of Massachusetts clinging to a 58-56 advantage, Chris Kirkland stole the ball from Iona's Jermaine Small and raced down court.

Determined to keep the Minuteman forward from getting the easy dunk, Small leaped up and fouled Kirkland hard in the air. Despite the collision, Kirkland still got the ball to drop through. Small was whistled for an intentional foul and Kirkland made both free throws to give the Minutemen a 62-56 advantage, by far their biggest lead of the game.

The Minutemen, who had trailed by as many as nine early in the half, went on to win, 85-77, in their season opener in front of a hostile crowd at the Mulcahy Center. UMass returns to action tonight against No. 8 Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion.

"We saw that if we keep our composure and do what we have to do, we can come back and win," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "Once we got the lead, we controlled the game. (Iona) is a good team."

"I thought we played a good second half," said senior guard Monty Mack. "We came out and played hard and everybody was just doing little things. We started rebounding and people hit some big shots."

UMass' new up-tempo offense was on display Saturday, although the Minutemen employed that style more judiciously than in the preseason. It still translated into more offense - they scored more than 80 points only twice a year ago.

"We got about five or six easy layups in the second half because we pushed it," Flint said.

UMass welcomed back seniors Mike Babul and Mack after both players missed much of the preseason and both exhibition games due to injuries. Babul started and Mack came off the bench, but Mack finished with the second-most minutes (31) on the team. The team's top returning scorer and defender both stepped right back into their roles.

Mack led all scorers with 21 points, including his 1,000th career point. Tariq Kirksay led the Gaels with 20 points, but 15 of those came in the first half. After rotating defenders on Kirksay, Flint gave Babul the assignment full time after intermission. Kirksay scored only five points the rest of way, all from the line.

"He's a great defender. Wherever I went, he was there," Kirksay said. "I tried to work hard but he worked a little harder. He didn't do anything special, he's just special himself. He's not the strongest guy or the fastest guy. He's just a smart defender."

The Gaels exploited one of UMass' vulnerable areas in the first half by getting both Minuteman centers - Kitwana Rhymer and Micah Brand - into early foul trouble. But reserve big man Anthony Oates turned in a solid six-minute effort off the bench.

Despite only playing 11 minutes before fouling out, Rhymer scored a career-high 12 points and grabbed seven boards.

"He was just hacking and he got some dumb fouls," Flint said. "One of the reasons we got hammered on the boards in the first half is that he wasn't out there."

Mack and Rhymer were among three double-digit scorers for UMass. Kirkland chipped in 15, while Shannon Crooks and Jonathan DePina each had 11.

DePina shook off two early turnovers and the diminutive junior guard extended his solid preseason play into the regular season. He hit a 3-pointer midway through the half when UMass was still fighting for the lead, and a clutch jumper with just over a minute left and Iona threatening.

"The play where Jonathan hit the 3-pointer was the big play. That tied it," Flint said. "(The late jumper) was huge. Last year he would have up-faked and thrown it away. But he did it with confidence, too. He played great today."

The win put the Minutemen above .500 for the first time since the first game of last year.

Video clips

All clips in MPEG format.
The Minutemen work the ball around for an open baseline jumper. (file size = 296k)
Micah Brand cleans up Chris Kirkland's garbage. (288k)
Free throw practice must be paying off for Shannon Crooks (120k), Monty Mack (120k) & Jonathan DePina (264k).


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Massachusetts Minutemen 85
Iona Gaels 77
at Iona

                      fg    ft    rb
               min   m-a   m-a   o-t  a pf   tp
Kirkland        36   4-8   7-8   1-5  1  2   15
Babul           30   2-2   3-4   0-6  3  1    7
Rhymer          11   6-8   0-1   4-7  0  5   12
Crooks          24  5-10   1-5   2-5  3  4   11
Depina          25   4-9   2-4   0-1  4  2   11
Oates            6   1-2   0-0   1-2  0  2    2
Blizzard         8   0-3   0-0   2-5  0  3    0
Johnson          2   0-0   0-0   0-0  0  0    0
Mack            31  6-19   5-6   1-4  2  2   21
Smith            5   0-0   2-2   0-0  0  0    2
Brand           22   2-8   0-0   3-7  0  5    4
TOTALS         200 30-69 20-30 14-42 13 26   85

Percentages: FG-.435, FT-.667. 3-Point Goals:
5-13, .385 (Crooks 0-1, Depina 1-1, Mack 4-11).
Team rebounds: 6. Blocked shots: 4 (Blizzard 2,
Kirkland, Brand). Turnovers: 19 (Kirkland 5,
Depina 3, Babul 2, Crooks 2, Mack 2, Rhymer 2,
Blizzard, Johnson). Steals: 10 (Babul 2, Depina
2, Kirkland 2, Mack 2, Crooks, Oates).

IONA (77)
                      fg    ft    rb
               min   m-a   m-a   o-t  a pf   tp
Kirksay         32  6-11   6-7  4-13  5  2   20
Wilson          26   5-7   3-9   1-1  0  5   13
Sellers         20   1-7   0-0   1-6  1  1    2
Grant           33  5-12   1-2   0-0  5  1   14
Wofford         28   0-4   2-6   1-3  2  1    2
Matthews         2   0-0   0-0   0-1  0  0    0
Norris          17   0-3   4-4   1-1  0  4    4
Young           13   1-3   0-0   0-0  1  1    2
Small            9   2-4   4-4   0-1  0  4    9
Miller          20   3-5   5-8   1-7  1  4   11
TOTALS         200 23-56 25-40  9-33 15 23   77

Percentages: FG-.411, FT-.625. 3-Point Goals:
6-15, .400 (Kirksay 2-2, Grant 3-7, Wofford 0-1,
Norris 0-2, Young 0-2, Small 1-1). Team rebounds:
6. Blocked shots: 10 (Sellers 5, Miller 4,
Wofford). Turnovers: 16 (Kirksay 4, Miller 2,
Sellers 2, Small 2, Wilson 2, Wofford 2, Norris,
Young). Steals: 7 (Wofford 3, Kirksay, Miller,
Norris, Wilson).
Massachusetts      38   47  -   85
Iona               43   34  -   77
Technical fouls: Massachusetts 1 (Mack).  Iona 1
(Young).  A: 3,025. Officials: John Cahill, Gene
Monje, Jack Sweeney.

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