INCINNATI — It was a magnificent display of tenacity, and nothing less. After six weeks of living a men's basketball nightmare, the University of Massachusetts is springing to life.
Shannon Crooks gets by Kevin Frey and dishes the rock.
But most of all, it showed that the second-half comeback in Saturday's win over George Washington was more than a mirage or a temporary blip. Finally, there's some real momentum with with team — and some real confidence.
"This shows what we can do when we put our minds to it," point guard Shannon Crooks said. "It's good to see guys happy in the locker room again. It's nice."
Xavier (11-3, 2-1), which has been knocking on the Top 25 door, lost for the first time in eight games at the Cintas Center, which opened this year. Trailing 61-45 with 5 minutes left, the Musketeers came within 68-62 with 1:13 to go.
But UMass, which hit its final 12 free throws against George Washington, made seven of its last eight to finish this one off.
"North Carolina is a little bigger, but other than them and maybe Connecticut, Xavier is as good a team as we've played," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "And never mind that this is the Atlantic 10, (Xavier sophomore center) David West is as good a player as there is in the country."
West riddled UMass with a career-high 28 points. He also had 11 rebounds, but no other Xavier player had more than three as UMass owned a 43-26 rebounding edge. Winston Smith 11 boards, his second-highest college total.
Monty Mack's 26 points led UMass, which also held Xavier to 33.3 percent shooting. The Musketeers were 5 for 22 in the first half.
"We didn't make shots, we didn't play with poise and while we didn't make many turnovers (14), we made them in crucial spots," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. "But I'd rather give UMass credit. They outscrapped us, and took it to us."
Ignoring a capacity crowd of 10,250, UMass took an early 27-14 lead. A 10-2 burst made it 45-33 in the second half.
UMass received major contributions from its bench, especially from forwards Eric Williams and Ronell Blizzard. Williams, who has struggled as a man-to-man defender, delivered nine powerful minutes in the first half — especially on defense.
Blizzard, a 6-8 junior, played some of the most important minutes of his career in the second half. He had seven points, two rebounds and four blocked shots in 14 minutes, and was a loose-ball hound.
Jackie Rogers tries to contain Reggie Butler.
Mack has scored 54 points in his last two games, and he seems to be turning his season around.
"He not only made shots tonight, he made big shots," Flint said. "In the last two games, he's been the Monty Mack I'd envisioned.
"I think it's the rims in Cincinnati — they like me," said Mack, who scored 32 against Xavier at Cincinnati Gardens last year. "Seriously, they ran some junk defenses at me — box-and-one, maybe a little triangle-and-two — but I'm trying to be patient and just take good shots."
INCINNATI — Rick Pitino's resignation from the Boston Celtics is big news in this city, where interest in the nearby University of Kentucky men's basketball team is high.
Lionel Chalmers keeps a close eye on Jonathan DePina.
Xavier coach Skip Prosser said Pitino's decision reflects the times, and the demands of the job.
"No one put more time in his job than he did," Prosser said. "His decision surprised me a little, but it's a tough job. You see a guy like (former Wisconsin coach) Dick Bennett and others, and they just hit a wall, even at the collegiate level."
"But Rick is a great coach, and he'll resurface," Prosser said. "I don't know him well enough to say it will definitely be at the college level, but it wouldn't surprise me."
Pitino's name has already been linked with Nevada-Las Vegas, UCLA, Indiana, Louisville or even a return to Kentucky. In each case, either an opening exists, or the current coach is under pressure to win more consistently.
Indiana's upset win over Michigan State Sunday at least temporarily took some pressure off Mike Davis, who replaced Bob Knight. At Louisville, Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum is hearing unprecedented criticism.
A Pitino move to Louisville, which is considered unlikely, would rock the region's basketball foundations. Many Kentucky alumni would be stunned to see Pitino sign on with the Wildcats' archrival.
Many UMass alumni would like to see Pitino return to his alma mater if the job opened up. But given the glamour of other available openings, that has been considered farfetched at best by sources close to the program.
Senior walk-on guard Dwayne Early has left the UMass team for personal reasons. The Central High School graduate played nine games last year (13 minutes) and scored four points, but had not appeared in a game this season.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE:
Entering last night, the UMass schedule ranked as America's fourth toughest, trailing only Arizona, Georgia and Illinois. Temple was sixth, even after playing Duke twice.
The UMass RPI power rating was 92nd, better than John Calipari's Memphis team (107th with a 6-8 record), among others.
The first 15 opponents on the UMass schedule were a combined 138-52 in games through Sunday. The aggregate record of the first nine teams that beat UMass was 88-25.
INCINNATI — Different isn't the word for the feeling that Shannon Crooks took back to the team hotel last night.
Shannon Crooks gets ready to work against David Young.
``I just wish we could go back to the beginning of the season,'' the UMass guard said after helping orchestrate the Minutemen's biggest win of the season last night - a 75-64 triumph over Xavier (11-3) at the new Cintra Center.
``I can admit that, like a lot of the guys, I wasn't all there earlier in the season. It just feels a lot better now. I just wish we could have played this way from the start.''
The Minutemen are 4-9, but 2-0 in the Atlantic 10. Going back to last Saturday's win in Amherst over George Washington, the Minutemen have won two straight for the first time this season.
But for the first time, the Minutemen played well from end to end, from minute one to minute 40.
``I've been talking about it, and finally we got one,'' coach Bruiser Flint said of his plea for two consistent halves of basketball. ``After watching them on tape, I thought (Xavier) was the best team beyond (North) Carolina that we've faced this year - maybe UConn, because UConn is bigger.''
Last night, the Minutemen were bigger, as well.
Though Monty Mack delivered almost all of the big shots with a 26-point, 8-for-19 performance that was his best of the year, the true difference was carved out of the backboard, where the Minutemen outrebounded the Musketeers by a 43-26 margin.
``There really wasn't much we did well, but the most glaring thing was the rebounding,'' said Xavier coach Skip Prosser. ``We had plenty of opportunities to take the lead back in this game, but they made the plays they needed, especially on the backboard.''
To that end, 6-foot-5 UMass forward Winston Smith produced his second double digit rebounding performance in the last three games, this time with 11 boards.
Ref Joe Demayo warns Bruiser, hidden in between assistants Mike Connors and Chuck Martin, that he was close to a technical foul in the first half.
With center David West doing some of the best work of his 28-point, 11-rebound performance down the stretch, the Musketeers cut the UMass lead to 64-54 with 2:20 left on a Maurice McAfee 3-pointer.
Crooks responded with a pair of free throws, but forward Loyd Price then came back with an open 3-pointer from the left side that chopped the UMass edge to 66-57.
The Minutemen ultimately held off Xavier with their free throw shooting - another of those early-season deficiencies that have since been improved - but not before they nearly handed it back.
Ronnell Blizzard, who made two huge blocks of West and Price down the second half stretch, threw away an inbounds pass with 1:32 left, and UMass paid for it when guard Romain Sato canned Xavier's third trey in under a minute, cutting the score to 68-61.
But UMass, which shot 11-of-14 from the line in the last two minutes, had just enough left to hold for the victory.
INCINNATI — There's something about Cincinnati that puts air in UMass' sneakers.
Last night's 75-64 win over Xavier wasn't only the first win by an opponent in the Musketeers' new Cintas Center, it was the second by a UMass team on Xavier's home court since the 1997-98 season.
Since then, the Musketeers are 49-3 on home hardwood, with UMass responsible for two of the losses. Last night's game also snapped a 24-game campus winning streak by the Musketeers.
Reach back to an overtime UMass win at the Cincinnati Gardens during the 1995-96 Final Four season, and the Minutemen have three wins in their last four trips to Cincinnati.
The series now stands at 4-4.
Blizzard wreaks havoc
Ronnell Blizzard, whose recent inspired play has earned the senior forward a prominent spot in Bruiser Flint's rotation after three quiet seasons, turned in two of the biggest plays of the game last night with his second-half blocks of Xavier's David West and Lloyd Price.
According to Blizzard, the timing is good for his increased role.
``I was kind of hoping that this would happen,'' said Blizzard. ``Once you get into the conference, and start playing against these teams, you go up against a lot more small forwards, which work out in terms of matchups with me.
``But everyone is stepping up right now,'' he said. ``We have a lot of depth on this team, and one advantage we get from that is that we can throw a lot of different looks at you.''
West shows his stuff
West, the leading rebounder in the Atlantic 10, had his usual powerful game with 28 points and 11 boards on 7-of-13 shooting.
``He's a big-time player,'' said Flint. ``We threw a lot of people at him, and he still had 28 and 11. Forget the Atlantic 10. He's one of the best players in the country.'' . . .
Though UMass has taken an obvious hammering from the likes of North Carolina and Oregon, Monty Mack believes that the benefits are starting to become apparent.
``I think it's made us a lot better,'' said Mack. ``There were only two games that we lost by big numbers. We were in the rest of them.''
assachusetts was a sleeping giant awakened. Xavier played like it needed a wake-up call.
The Musketeers saw their six-game winning streak and Top 25 dreams end Tuesday night in a 75-64 defeat, losing for the first time in Cintas Center. Sleepwalking through the first 34 minutes and relying almost entirely on David West — he can't do it by himself — they let the Minutemen rule the boards in an easy upset.
“We should have been more enthusiastic,” XU senior captain Maurice McAfee said. “We've got a lot at stake and we're playing on our home court. But they played with a seriousness of purpose we didn't have.”
UMass (4-9), which entered Atlantic 10 play at 2-9, is now tied for the league lead at 2-0. XU (11-3, 2-1 A-10), a 13-point favorite, had a 14-game home winning streak snapped and missed a chance to tie its finest start in school history.
Where does it go from here?
“We were 11-3 last year, too,” XU coach Skip Prosser said. “What's important now is how we handle the next practice, the next game. Every game you lose, you're at a potential big-time crossroads.”
Last January, XU lost four straight games. The Musketeers never recovered, missing the NCAA Tournament.
Kit Rhymer got into foul trouble trying to stop David West.
West broke his career scoring high for the second straight game, totaling 28 points with 11 rebounds, but he had little help. UMass outrebounded XU 43-26, a turnaround from the 43-21 rebounding edge the Musketeers had last season in an 87-77 victory over UMass.
XU entered Tuesday's game ranked No.2 in the league in rebounding margin (plus-4.6), not having been outrebounded in its last eight games. UMass ranked 10th of 11 teams (minus-2.4).
“It hurts when you let a team beat you on your home floor,” West said. “They played with a lot more pride than we did. It has nothing to do with basketball. It just comes down to heart.”
XU has lost just three of its last 57 home games, two of them to UMass. UMass is the only team against which XU has a losing record in A-10 regular-season play (2-4, including 1-3 in Cincinnati).
UMass raced to a 13-point lead midway through the first half, though XU crept within 35-31 five minutes into the second half. But XU rushed shots all night, shooting .333 — its second-worst showing of the season — and doomed its own comeback hopes. With six minutes left, it faced its biggest deficit at 61-45.
Micah Brand and Winston Smith try to stop Lionel Chalmers.
XU's backcourt, rated second-best in the A-10 by Blue Ribbon, was dominated by the one Blue Ribbon judged the best. Mack scored 26 points, and the backcourt totaled 45 points; XU's guards scored just 15 points.
XU was 5-of-23 (.217) on 3-pointers, continuing a season-long struggle (.286) from that distance.
“Outside, we couldn't get anything going,” XU sophomore guard Lionel Chalmers said. “I hope we learned our lesson: We've got to play hard every night.”
Said junior Lloyd Price: “It's just one loss. There's no long-term concerns. All we gotta do is come back strong.”
XU shot just 5-for-22 in the first half (.227), its worst-shooting half of the season.
Its previous low was a 5-for-20 showing (.250) in the second half of its 61-46 loss at Wisconsin.
The Musketeers scored more points from the free throw line (13) than on baskets (11) in the first half Tuesday.
he Cintas Center has lost a little of its showroom sheen. The Xavier Musketeers took the floor Tuesday night undefeated in their lush new digs, and left it looking like something you'd find at a scratch-and-dent sale.
Micah Brand gets a hand in Romain Sato's face.
“Tonight they came in and they played with a lot more pride than we had,” said Xavier center David West. “They out-toughed us tonight, and there's no excuse for that. It came down to heart. It had nothing to do with basketball.”
The Minutemen came in 3-9, and departed convinced their record must be a misprint. They beat the Muskies to most of the loose balls and fairly bludgeoned them on the backboards, 43-26. If this had been a heavyweight bout, somebody would have stopped it by the third round.
“They took the fight to us,” Xavier coach Skip Prosser conceded.
On the surface, it might appear that the Muskies were beaten because they allowed too many second shots. Technically, this wasn't true. It was the third and fourth shots that made the difference. If at first the Minutemen did not succeed, they'd try, try again until one of their bricks found the bottom of the net.
The wondrous West had 28 points and 11 rebounds for Xavier. Prosser's forwards, however, went to the boards as if their ankles were clapped in irons. Lloyd Price fouled out with two rebounds. Kevin Frey played 23 minutes and snared one.
Because the Muskies out-rebounded 10 of their previous 13 opponents, it is possible to believe Tuesday's tilt an aberration. It is also possible to believe that their record is inflated by soft scheduling.
Massachusetts' schedule may be too masochistic. The Minutemen have played Connecticut in Hartford, North Carolina in Charlotte, Marquette in Milwaukee and Ohio State in Columbus — and lost them all. Some teams could get discouraged by these experiences. UMass has gotten stronger.
“We don't have attitudes, so you have an opportunity to turn it around,” said Massachusetts coach Bruiser Flint. “Before, we had attitudes.”
Riding a streak of six straight victories, Xavier's attitude should have been euphoric. The Muskies have climbed to 17th in the latest Ratings Percentage Index readout and were close to graduating from Also Received Votes into the USA Today/ESPN Top 25.
Yet the attitude most obvious among the Muskies Tuesday was complacency. They scored two field goals in the first 10 minutes, grabbed only five of the first 20 rebounds and were unable to find useful alternatives to forcing the ball in to a surrounded center. Except for West, no Xavier player scored more than seven points or seized more than three rebounds.
If history is any indicator, the Muskies will not dwell on this debacle. Last year, they lost to LaSalle by 31 points at Cincinnati Gardens, and still managed to win 21 games. No basketball score in January is of lasting significance.
“What's important now is how we handle tonight,” Prosser said. “Every time you lose a game, you're at a crossroads. It's time to see how we handle it.”
It's time to see if the Muskies are worthy of their swank new surroundings.
ackluster. Anemic. Emotionless. The adjectives keep coming to mind when watching the performance against UMass on Tuesday evening. The only thing more numerous than descriptive words was questions, such as: (1) how can a team play so well away from home and so poorly upon return? (2) where was that stellar defense that had held teams to 62 point a game? and (3) how can XU let a team as good as Massachusetts sneak up on them?
Kevin Frey slips past Micah Brand.
XU’s defense in the first half kept them within shouting distance. With 7:01 left until halftime, the Musketeers trailed by 13. From that point, the defense allowed only one field goal under the first half buzzer, but the offense could only manage two of their own, along with some free throws. Still, with 20 minutes left to play, the Muskies had but a six-point deficit to cover.
Coming out in the second half, Xavier looked to David West for some stability. West scored on the first possession and then made a key steal on the defensive end. XU proceeded to commit three straight fouls, and Kitwana Rhymer added a free throw and a lay-up to put UMass back up by seven.
At every key juncture, XU either failed to execute offensively, turned the ball over, or allowed UMass open looks from the floor. Xavier would cut the lead to six, only to see it grow to nine. XU got the score out of double digits, but Massachusetts would come back with a three-pointer. The frustration turned into poor offensive sets and defensive lapses – the perfect recipe for a home loss.
“They took the fight to us tonight,” Coach Prosser said after the game. “They played better than we did.” West was equally simple in his comments. “They came in here and gave us a good whoopin’,” he said. “There’s nothing technical about it – it’s not about basketball.”
The Minutemen certainly whooped the Muskies tonight. The rebounding margin (43-26) was Xavier’s worst this season. Coming into the game, the Musketeers had held a 4.6rpg advantage over its opponents. XU only converted five field goals in the first half and shot 33.3% from the field for the game. Simply put, that doesn’t get the job done.
Bruiser Flint, UMass’ head coach, was complimentary of the Musketeers. “They’re the best team, other than (North) Carolina that we’ve played all year.” He was just as complimentary of West, who he called “as good a player as there is in the country – forget just the A-10.” West set another career high, scoring 28 points in the game (14-17 FTs), but it wasn’t enough to offset the solid performance by UMass.
“Every time you lose, there is the opportunity for a crossroads,” Prosser said after the game. “Let’s see how we handle it.” XU comes to its crossroads at a difficult stretch in conference play; three of its next four games are on the road, albeit against some of the weaker competition in the A-10. However, as we found out tonight, records don’t matter too much in this league.
INCINNATI - It would have been unthinkable a week ago, and highly unlikely even three days ago. Tuesday night, however, it happened.
The suddenly-good University of Massachusetts men's basketball team turned in by far its best performance of the season and shocked Xavier, 75-64, at the Cintas Center Tuesday.
Junior point guard Shannon Crooks said UMass' 76-60 win over George Washington Saturday gave the team confidence Tuesday.
"It showed us what we can do when we put our minds to it," Crooks said. "It just carried over. We need it to continue to carry over."
UMass travels to Buffalo today, where it will practice for two days before heading to Olean, N.Y., to take on St. Bonaventure at 2 p.m. Saturday.
It was the Musketeers' first loss in their new home gym and it snapped a 14-game home winning streak. Since the 1997-98 season, Xavier (11-3, 2-1) is 49-3 at home, but the Minutemen authored two of those defeats.
"We didn't take UMass lightly," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. "Give them the credit. They beat us."
Monty Mack was impressive again. His 26 points marked his fourth consecutive game with 20 or more, and pushed UMass (4-9, 2-0) to its first back-to-back wins of the season.
Mack, who had 32 against Xavier last year, joked about his Queen City success.
"I think it's the rims. They like me here," he said grinning. "Nah, I've been taking my time being patient and taking shots teams are giving me."
Crooks added 12 points. David West led the Musketeers with 28 points and 11 rebounds.
West didn't get much help on the boards as the Minutemen dominated the glass, 43-26, led by Winston Smith's 11 rebounds.
Minuteman coach Bruiser Flint has complained all season that his team hadn't played well for a full game. But it strung two good halves together with impressive results Tuesday.
"We beat a very good team tonight," Flint said. "I said to my assistant coaches, this is probably the best team we played except (North) Carolina or maybe UConn. We put two halves together and played good basketball."
With UMass leading, 30-24, at halftime, the Musketeers came out sharp in the second half and stayed within striking distance early. Reggie Butler backed in Jackie Rogers to bring the home team within four at 35-31, but Jonathan DePina swished an open 3-pointer.
The shot was indicative of the Minutemen's night. Anytime Xavier made a push, UMass seemed to respond with a big shot.
With only West able to do anything offensively, the Minutemen stretched their lead. The once-boisterous crowd quieted as a driving finger-roll by Crooks put the Minutemen ahead, 61-45, with 6:22 left in the game.
The Musketeers made a push late. A Romain Sato 3-pointer brought the lead under 10 points at 68-61 with 1:23 left. When Crooks missed two free throws, Xavier fans who didn't leave early got some hope that their team might make an improbable comeback. But Maurice McAfee made only one of two free throws at the other end, making it 68-62 with 1:13 left.
McAfee fouled Mack quickly on the inbounds, and he made both free throws, giving the Minutemen a little breathing room.
Xavier hurried the ball up the floor, but Lionel Chalmers missed a 3-point attempt. The long rebound caromed out to McAfee, who also missed a 3-point try. Crooks came down with the rebound.
He was quickly fouled. He made both free throws and when the second dropped in to make it 72-62 with 56.3 seconds left, several players on the UMass bench raised their arms victoriously.
"It feels good," Crooks said. "It gives guys energy. It's good to see guys happy in the locker room."
The Musketeers took a 5-4 lead 3:03 into the game, but Mack buried a 3-pointer from the corner to give the Minutemen a lead it held the rest of the game. The 3-pointer kicked off a 14-3 run that put UMass ahead, 18-8.
The Minutemen built that lead to 13 twice in the half, but Xavier made a 10-3 run to move within six, 30-24, at the half.
INCINNATI - With 5:45 left in the game and Xavier trailing by 16, the Musketeers went to the one option that had been consistently working, sophomore center David West down on the block.
But when he spun toward the hoop and put the ball in the air, Ronell Blizzard leapt out of nowhere and swatted the ball off the backboard.
It was one of four blocks on the day for the University of Massachusetts junior forward, who added seven points and two rebounds. He played solid defense and redirected several rebounds that he couldn't reach to teammates.
He was glad to contribute.
"We're trying to get off to a good start in the conference, so it's important for me to be active and come in and play confident for us," Blizzard said.
Blizzard is unquestionably athletic, but in two previous years on the UMass roster, he has been unable to find a role on the team. But halfway through his third season, Blizzard seems to have found his place. Minuteman coach Bruiser Flint has used the Waterbury, Conn., native at both forward spots and he's been effective.
"He's been playing pretty good lately so he deserved to play," Flint said.
Blizzard said he knew his chance would come.
"I've had confidence the whole time," Blizzard said. "I knew in the conference that we play against smaller guys at the (power forward) position that Micah (Brand) and Jackie (Rogers) might have a hard time guarding. I knew sooner or later he'd have to come to me."
MASSACHUSETTS (75) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Smith 30 0-4 0-0 4-11 2 5 0 Brand 16 3-6 0-0 1-3 1 4 6 Rhymer 21 3-4 3-6 3-5 1 4 9 Mack 38 8-19 6-7 0-5 1 3 26 Crooks 26 3-7 6-8 0-4 3 3 12 Depina 23 1-3 4-4 1-3 2 0 7 Rogers 20 1-4 1-2 2-3 2 1 3 Blizzard 14 2-3 2-4 2-2 0 3 7 Williams 12 2-2 1-2 1-5 0 3 5 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 23-52 23-33 14-41 12 26 75 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.442, FT-.697. 3-Point Goals: 6-14, .429 (Mack 4-10, Crooks 0-1, Depina 1-2, Blizzard 1-1). Team rebounds: 2. Blocked shots: 4 (Blizzard 4). Turnovers: 19 (Smith 4, Blizzard 3, Williams 3, Depina 2, Mack 2, Brand, Rhymer, Rogers). Steals: 4 (Blizzard, Mack, Rogers, Smith). XAVIER (64) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Frey 23 1-6 4-4 0-1 1 1 7 Price 32 2-8 1-2 0-2 1 5 6 West 37 7-13 14-17 3-11 2 2 28 Mcafee 38 1-6 4-6 2-3 5 5 7 Sato 23 1-5 0-0 0-3 2 4 3 Chalmers 26 2-9 0-0 0-1 3 4 5 Young 5 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 2 0 Mcintosh 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 1 0 Brown 6 0-2 0-0 1-1 0 0 0 Mason 1 1-1 0-0 1-1 0 0 2 Butler 8 3-3 0-1 2-2 1 2 6 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 18-54 23-30 9-25 15 26 64 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.333, FT-.767. 3-Point Goals: 5-23, .217 (Frey 1-2, Price 1-3, Mcafee 1-6, Sato 1-5, Chalmers 1-7). Team rebounds: 1. Blocked shots: 4 (Sato 2, West, Butler). Turnovers: 14 (Frey 4, Mcafee 3, West 2, Young 2, Chalmers, Price, Sato). Steals: 6 (West 2, Chalmers, Frey, Mcafee, Mcintosh). __________________________________ Massachusetts 30 45 - 75 Xavier 24 40 - 64 __________________________________ Technical fouls: None. A: 10,250. Officials: Gary Bova, Mike Sanzere, Joe Demayo.