MHERST - Winston Smith and Jonathan DePina were flapping their arms like angry birds, practically ordering the sparse Mullins Center crowd to get on its feet last night.
The rest of the Minutemen had piled up on the floor, once again survivors after a breakneck 59-49 win over Xavier that shook up the Atlantic 10 standings.
The Minutemen, though 11-11, moved up to 9-2 in the conference, thus displacing the Musketeers (18-5, 9-3) in second place. They now trail A-10 leader St. Joseph's (20-4, 10-1) by a game.
It took perhaps the biggest performance of DePina's UMass career, as well as a blanket defensive effort that limited the Musketeers to 24 percent shooting in the second half, to make this possible.
DePina scored all nine of his points in the last 8:50, including a four-point play that snuffed out a 7-0 Xavier run, to pull UMass back within a point. They took the lead for good on a Micah Brand put-back 24 seconds later, and built their lead out of sheer desperation.
For a team that has no margin of error left, and Temple (14-12, 8-4) checking in Saturday, there is no time to dream.
Micah Brand looks for options against the double-team.
``We've been that way since the New Year,'' coach Bruiser Flint said of the team's 9-2 run since Jan. 6.
``Our whole thing is to win the regular-season title,'' said Flint. ``I didn't think we were going to go undefeated, or even lose just one game in the conference. But let's not get down. Let's just keep moving ahead.''
Last night's win gave the Minutemen a season sweep of Xavier. They will shoot for the same result against Temple.
``That was a pretty big play,'' Xavier coach Skip Prosser said of DePina's four-point play - made possible when Musketeers freshman Lionel Chalmers fouled the UMass guard as he was draining a deep shot-clock-beating trey. ``Better teams would show resolve, and we didn't deal with it the right way.
``In the second half our offense was just horrible, and their defense was just excellent.''
Brand's put-back marked the last of five second-half lead changes, after the Minutemen fell behind by a 29-25 halftime score and came back over the first four minutes of the second half with a 7-0 run for their first lead since the game's opening basket.
But DePina's play lifted the Minutemen into a ferocious finishing kick. Shannon Crooks followed with a trey, and after the Minutemen produced two major stops when Kitwana Rhymer blocked Xavier center David West to force a shot block violation, followed by a Kevin Frey miss, DePina lifted things another notch.
The 5-foot-8 guard's lunging tip-in off a Monty Mack miss off the break not only ignited the crowd, but gave the Minutemen a 47-41 lead that Mack pushed out to 50-42 with a trey.
Mack (game-high 23 points) then snuffed out a short 3-0 Xavier burst with a runner for a 52-44 UMass lead with 3:02 left. Prosser then opted to start fouling early - a strategy that backfired.
The Minutemen shot 8-for-10 from the line over the last 1:45.
MHERST - It's been a long time since a UMass player has heard the ``We Want Temple'' chant cascading through the Mullins Center.
The good part is that no one has to wait long.
``The game against Temple has always meant a lot to us,'' said Jonathan DePina, the hero of last night's 59-49 win over Xavier. ``But this is going to be a big game Saturday. And we know they're ready for us.''
Lest anyone needs a reminder, the Minutemen beat the Owls in the Liacouras Center on Jan. 27 in overtime. John Chaney later lambasted the officials.
Some things never change.
Shannon Crooks dishes the rock.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint refuses to put any stock in the fact that Temple has lost its last two games - to St. Joseph's and Xavier.
``We know what it will be like Saturday. They're struggling a bit, but this is us. They always get up for playing us,'' said Flint.
A lot in reserve
The UMass bench - noticeably quiet during last week's loss to Dayton - came up particularly big last night.
Beyond DePina's game-saving performance down the stretch, forward Jackie Rogers played an active inside role and finished with four important points. Eric Williams, in addition to sealing off the lane, came up with a steal and four rebounds, including two on the offensive glass.
But DePina supplied the finishing touches.
``He's my man. He was all over the place,'' said Crooks. ``He was the point guard while he was out there, and he still went after things very aggressively, like with that tip-in. He just went after it. And when the guys see someone like that, playing with that kind of energy, it gets them going.''
Even Flint, who is accustomed to kidding DePina more than flat-out praising the guard, had to agree.
``He's the most-liked kid on the squad,'' said Flint. ``He came in and made big plays. The good thing was that he didn't get too high or low tonight.''
In General, Flint upset
Flint admitted last night that he was bothered by the attention paid to rumors - all of them denied by UMass athletic director Bob Marcum - connecting Bob Knight to UMass.
``To be honest, I was disappointed,'' he said. ``It took away from what we've done. You're in the thick of the race, and they throw that out there.''
MHERST - Let's begin by pointing out that UMass basketball fans have always been crybabies.
More than 20 years ago, when the great Jack Leaman was chalking the plays, they whined about not getting good press from the Boston newspapers. And just a few years back, during the Marcus Camby era, when the Boston media descended on the Mullins Center as though it were Fenway Park on Opening Day, the UMass zealots complained that fans inside Route 128 didn't ``respect'' Minuteman basketball.
Well, here's a special message for all UMass alumni: Next time you want to complain about something, try aiming your wrath at the students who are living in your old dorm rooms.
These students are a joke. The suddenly very hot Minutemen played one of their most impressive games of the season last night, submitting a 59-49 victory over Atlantic-10 powerhouse Xavier, but most of UMass' 17,000 had somewhere else to go.
``I guess they had something better to do,'' said senior Monty Mack, who led the Minutemen with 23 points.
Yeah, maybe there was a cake sale going on at the Blue Wall, or a quilting bee at the Student Union. What we do know is that 5,247 fans turned out last night, and from the looks of things, most were non-students. In other words, the Minutemen appear to be getting more support from the ``community'' than from their own campus.
``Well, they used to say we had to win to get fans - and now we're winning,'' said embattled UMass coach Bruiser Flint, whose Minutemen have won seven of their last eight games to even their record at 11-11 and boost their A-10 record to 9-2. ``I can't believe we only drew 5,000 fans tonight. I'll be flat-out honest about that.''
Flint said he recently watched a television program in which NBA commissioner David Stern pointed out that fans have so many more entertainment options these days, including the Internet and Direct TV, that getting out to the game isn't as pressing as it used to be.
``I guess you have to be a true fan to be at the game now,'' said Flint.
To be sure, the 5,247 fans who showed up had the Mullins Center rocking. And to be fair, last night's crowd wouldn't have fit inside the old Curry Hicks Cage, for many years the home of the Minutemen.
UMass wanted to play with the big boys, and that's why they have a big-time arena that holds just under 9,500. Alas, most of UMass' 17,000 undergraduates have taken this attitude: If UMass isn't ranked in the top 10, they'd rather sit inside their dorm rooms and play video games.
Those students who do bother to show up are exactly what Flint was talking about: They are true fans.
Take, for instance, sophomore Jonathan Green of Fairhaven and senior Bryce Craver of Rockaway, N.J. The two students wore half-basketballs on their heads, something they do for all UMass home games and, said Green, ``. . . is my way of saying that I love UMass basketball. We started doing it because we got pissed off that nobody was supporting the team.''
Said Craven: ``It used to be that you had to hustle to get tickets to the games. Now, you just show up. And it's too bad. It's a better atmosphere when the place is packed.''
Flint points out that the Mullins Center will likely be banged out for Saturday's game against Temple, but said, ``Temple is our archrival. They could be 0-20 and people would still want to see them.''
Going out on a limb, Flint goes so far as to suggest, ``That's one of the problems with the A-10,'' meaning that UMass students may not know Xavier happens to be a pretty good basketball program. Flint would also like to see UMass schedule more home games early in the season - even if they were ``cupcakes.''
In the meantime, the Minutemen have three more home games before the A-10 Tournament, and, surprise, surprise, they have a chance to actually win that tourney and advance to, dare we say it, the NCAA tourney.
The Minutemen? Returning to March Madness?
Maybe that will inspire the sleepy, blurry-eyed UMass students to log off and check out UMass.
MHERST, Mass. — Massachusetts has Xavier's number. And Xavier's NCAA Tournament chase now has suspense.
The Xavier defense kept Kit Rhymer in check all night.
Ranked 24th just a week ago, XU has lost back-to-back road games and quieted recent talk that it was a certain tourney team.
“Right now, we don't know,” sophomore center David West said. “This is a good enough team to play in the tournament. But if we have hopes for the NCAAs, we have to finish strong.”
XU shot just 24 percent (6-for-25) in the second half and lost a five-point lead in the last nine minutes. It made just three baskets in the first 16:39 of the second half, being outscored 14-0 in one critical five-minute stretch.
“The postseason, I'm not as concerned with,” coach Skip Prosser said. “I'm just concerned with us trying to get better. In the second half, our offense was just horrible.”
This is the first time in five years XU has been swept in two regular-season games by the same team. The Minutemen remain the only team against which XU has a losing record (2-5) in A-10 regular-season play.
Incredibly, a UMass team (11-11) that went 2-9 in nonconference play now controls its own destiny in the A-10 title chase. It's in second place at 9-2 and still has a meeting left with St. Joe's.
“We've had great focus since the new year,” UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. “Our whole thing is to win the regular-season (title).”
XU shot 31.5 percent, its second-lowest total of the season, and its six second-half baskets tied for the fewest it has totaled in a half this season.
Again, West was the only Musketeer to deliver. He totaled 19 points (7-for-12 shooting) and 12 rebounds; the rest of the team shot 10-for-42 (23 percent). In the 75-64 loss Jan.9 to UMass, West totaled 28 points (7-for-13) and 11 rebounds while the rest of the team went 11-for-39 (28 percent).
Lloyd Price and Kevin Frey were both 1-for-8 Wednesday. Lionel Chalmers was 1-for-7.
“Somebody needed to make plays, and nobody did,” Chalmers said. “We were taking bad shots.”
XU led 41-36 with nine minutes left, and appeared ready to get the ball back when UMass' Jonathan DePina was stuck with no apparent shot and the shot clock expiring. But he sank a desperation 3-pointer asChalmers made contact and converted the free throw for a four-point play.
It was the quintessential turning point.
“It was a pretty big play,” Prosser said. “Better teams show resolve at times like that. We didn't deal with it the right way.”
XU didn't even manage a shot on its next two possessions, and UMass kept scoring. When Monty Mack sank a 3-pointer with 4:23 left, it led 50-41.
“We made a couple bad plays, but we still had a chance,” Chalmers said. “But we couldn't get the job done.”
XU didn't mount a sustained run. Maurice McAfee, who scored 10 points, was the only player besides West to make a second-half basket. West scored six of XU's final eight points, and XU got as close as 50-44, but UMass closed it out with free throws.
“They came up with the intensity,” Price said. “We rushed shots, and we paid for it.”
Prosser said the problem wasn't about effort, but execution.
“We didn't screen. We didn't cut. We weren't patient enough,” he said.
ll of a sudden, the tides have turned. XU’s not sitting so pretty anymore. Three games ago, the Musketeers were 17-3, tied for first in the A-10, and ranked #24 in the AP poll. Now, just a week after the high point of their season, Xavier has dropped two of its last three meetings. Massachusetts (11-11, 9-2 A-10) took hold of second place – and the only chance to catch conference leader St. Joe’s – by knocking off the Muskies (18-5, 9-3) in Amherst, 59-49.
The game began promising enough, with XU jumping out to a 15-7 lead in the first eight minutes. The Minutemen starting cutting into the lead and eventually tied the score at 22. The Musketeers then held UMass to only three more points until halftime, taking a 29-25 lead into the locker rooms. It was an ugly half, with neither team shooting better than 40% from the field.
The second half did not start as promising as the first, and it turned out to be the game’s theme. XU scored one point in the first five minutes, and UMass took the lead for a short time. When XU awoke from its halftime slumber, they bolted on a 9-2 run, widening the lead to six points with less than 10 minutes to play in the game. Then the collapse began.
UMass answered with a 15-0 run, retaking the lead for good. XU continued its poor shooting for the rest of the game, recording no field goals outside of the three-point arc in the final eight minutes. David West tried to keep the team competitive, scoring 19 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, but in the end, the lack of a perimeter attack eliminated the Muskies for a second time against the Minutemen.
It’s a familiar trend throughout the Musketeer losses this season. When West doesn’t get any assistance from the outside game, Xavier loses – plain and simple. UMass has game planned to stop everyone but the Muskies’ go-to guy, and it has worked twice. Wisconsin and Princeton played tremendous team defense against the perimeter players. XU needs a balanced attack to win; they didn’t get it tonight.
As was previously mentioned, West led the Musketeers with 19 points, and Maurice McAfee chipped in 10. Romain Sato, after scoring seven points in the first half, did not contribute in the second. Lionel Chalmers (1-7 FG) and Lloyd Price (1-8 FG) managed four points. Kevin Frey hit a three in the first five minutes and wasn’t heard from again. Xavier missed three front ends of bonus situations. Nothing went right tonight, and the results were predictable.
Monty Mack, the Musketeer slayer, led UMass with 23 points. UMass did not shoot the ball particularly well tonight, but with the way Xavier struggled from the field (31.5%), they didn’t have to. Their defense was a big part of Xavier’s struggles; the Minutemen contested almost all of the Muskie outside shots, and they forced XU into 13 turnovers.
The gauntlet has been thrown down at the Musketeers’ feet. XU must win its final four games to be in a position to capture an at-large bid. A loss to any of their next regular-season opponents – all of which reside in the bottom tier of the conference – will mean jeopardizing an already fragile tournament resume. Win out, and the record stands at 22-5 going into the tournament. Lose one, and not winning the conference tournament means seven losses for a team with only one quality win since December. It’s time for XU to step up to the plate and prove they belong in the Big Dance.
MHERST — The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is making its message clear to all who will listen: when it comes to the race for the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season championship, this team is in it to the end.
Monty Mack didn't have a spectacular shooting night, nobody did, but still led all scorers with 23.
A 14-0 surge in the second half gave UMass (11-11, 9-2 A-10) a 50-41 lead in the comeback victory, and kept the Minutemen right behind league leader St. Joseph's (10-1 A-10). The teams meet in Philadelphia Feb. 27.
But the next test for UMass is Saturday against Temple (8-4 A-10) at the Mullins Center. Last night's disappointing crowd of 5,247 notwithstanding, early sales suggest that game may be played to a capacity crowd.
At the end last night, fans were chanting "We want Temple!" Winston Smith flung the ball to the rafters at the final horn, and Mack may have set a personal vertical-leap record as he celebrated a terrific win.
Xavier fell to 18-5 overall and 9-3 in the conference. UMass swept both meetings against the Musketeers, and moved closed to wrapping up a first-round bye in the Atlantic 10 tournament. The top five regular-season finishers get byes.
Soon after DePina had been whistled for an intentional foul, Xavier had momentum and a 41-36 lead. But UMass launched its 14-0 run and took a 50-41 advantage with 4:23 left, holding Xavier scoreless for a 5:04 stretch and without a field goal for 6:08.
A four-point play by DePina lifted UMass just when it looked like the Minutemen were sagging. Xavier's lead was still at 41-36 when DePina was bumped by Lionel Chalmers as he hit a 3-pointer.
He made the foul shot to cut the Muskeeters' lead to 41-40 with 8:47 left. Micah Brand followed with a layup, Crooks hit a 3-pointer and UMass led 45-41 with 7:09 left.
A tip-in by DePina and Mack's 3-point capped the 14-0 surge.
"I think the four-point play was the turning point — I know it got Jonathan juiced up," Mack said. "And the tip-in might have been the biggest play of the game."
Asked when he had last scored on a tip-in, the 5-foot-9 DePina smiled and said "at South Boston High."
Xavier couldn't answer, shooting 24 percent in the second half and 31.5 percent overall.
Big men Rhymer and West battle for the loose ball.
This time, Xavier had 26 rebounds in the first half, to 15 for UMass. And there were plenty of shots to rebound as the Minutemen shot 9 for 30 in the half.
"We were lucky to be down only four," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "It seemed like we missed every shot."
Mack went 3 for 13 in the first half but still finished with 23 points, hitting 4 for 7 shots in the second half. It was his seventh straight 20-point game, something no UMass player had done since Julius Erving in 1970-71.
Brand scored all seven of his points in the second half, including a ferocious dunk in the first 20 seconds of the half. His 10 rebounds tied his career high, while Crooks had 10 points, and DePina scored nine.
Xavier center David West (19 points) and guard Maurice McAfee (10) led Xavier. The Musketeers scored nine of their first 12 points off UMass turnovers, but didn't score another point off a turnover after that.
Xavier led 15-7 at one point. A 3-pointer by forward Eric Williams — his first at UMass — cut Xavier's lead to 26-25 with a minute left in the half, but Chalmers responded with a 3, and the Musketeers led by four at the break.
MHERST — After last night's win over Xavier, University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Bruiser Flint admitted his team can't do much more to attract fans than it has been doing.
And in one of his more candid moments on the subject, Flint said that maybe what his team has been doing — winning seven of its last eight games for a 9-2 Atlantic 10 record and a shot at the league championship — should be enough.
But it hasn't been, and last night's 59-49 win over Xavier — considered the biggest of the season was played before only 5,247.
"Everybody told me I had to win, and we've been winning," said Flint, whose future has been the source of widespread speculation. "We're also playing exciting ball, and we did it tonight against Xavier, a great team with a great tradition."
Flint said that some fans in Western Massachusetts don't realize the level of competition presented in the A-10. UMass won five straight league titles from 1992-96, and even many fans have admitted they were spoiled.
But the coach also said he understands why fans don't come out like they once did, although Saturday's game with Temple is approaching sellout status with about 1,000 tickets left.
"People have the Internet, they have DirecTV, they've got a lot of other things they can do," he said.
NO NAMES, PLEASE:
UMass athletic director Bob Marcum said he had "no idea" of where the decision originated to stop announcing the names of the coaches during pregame introductions.
Neither Flint's name nor that of the visiting coach has been announced for the past several home games. Public address announcer Jack O'Neill said he was told to stop announcing the coaches' names "until further notice," and followed the edict again before last night's Xavier-UMass game at the Mullins Center.
O'Neill declined to say who gave the order, which dates at least as far back as the Dec. 17 home game against Boston College.
"I was told to do this by the university," O'Neill said. "I can say it wasn't Bob Marcum. I'd like to leave it at that."
"I have no idea where it came from," Marcum said. "I didn't even known about it until I read it in the newspaper (recently)."
Marcum claimed he hasn't taken action on the decision because he didn't know the source, and did not indicate any plans to find out.
Marcum also told reporters last night that he'd has had no contact whatsoever with deposed Indiana coach Bob Knight, the subject of speculation regarding next season's coaching situation if Flint is not back.
The appearance of Dick Vitale has become a symbol of significance for any college basketball game, and the popular broadcaster will be at the Mullins Center for the Temple game Saturday. Vitale and play-by-play man Brent Musburger will handle the ABC telecast.
MHERST — Xavier University came to the Mullins Center with two point guards — Maurice McAfee and Lionel Chalmers — playing key roles.
Massachusetts has three, though one is coach Bruiser Flint, retired since 1987. The others are junior Shannon Crooks and senior Jonathan DePina, and after making big play after big play in last night's 59-49 win over Xavier, they sent a reminder that if the UMass point guards keep rising to the occasion, this strong-willed team might keep rising right along with them.
Monty Mack is the best player on the team. Kitwana Rhymer and Ronell Blizzard are the most improved. But perhaps Crooks and DePina are the most important, because the offense starts with them.
"Jonathan played great," Flint said. "He got a big four-point play, and a tip-in, and he settled the team down. He handled the team well, and Shannon was playing pretty well out there, too."
This was a special win for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that the UMass point guards delivered clutch plays in the biggest game of the year. Lose this one, and the chase for the regular-season title is just about over.
DePina and Crooks — especially DePina — wouldn't let that happen. They combined for 19 points, hit big shots and big free throws in the final minutes and helped UMass tie its season low with eight turnovers, while Xavier's point-guard pair of Chalmers and McAfee combined for 14 points, two assists and three turnovers.
As the Atlantic 10 season heads into the stretch run, the crucial nature of point-guard play is obvious. Look at St. Joseph's, a losing team last season.
Instead, the Hawks lead the league. The difference? The addition of Jameer Nelson, their sensational freshman point guard.
Look at Temple. Last year's A-10 Player of the Year was Owls' point guard Pepe Sanchez, who went to the Philadelphia 76ers while the Temple point-guard spot went to converted shooting guard Lynn Greer.
Greer has done well, but he's not Sanchez. And the Owls are 14-12.
Give the UMass point guards some credit. Crooks' game is probably better suited to small forward or shooting guard, but he's a point guard out of necessity, since freshman Anthony Anderson — the presumed point guard of the future — was ruled academically ineligible this year.
DePina came to college as a run-and-gun guard, and has spent his entire career adjusting to half-court play. He's done better than he's often been credited, with 62 assists and 37 turnovers this year.
Last night, it was the UMass point guards who rose to the test, mostly by scoring. DePina hit a rare four-point play with UMass trailing 41-36. Crooks hit a 3-pointer, and then DePina — all 5 feet 9 of him — tipped in a missed shot, and it was 47-41.
"After I got called for an intentional foul (in the second half), our team just huddled together and said we had to play defense and not turn the ball over," DePina said.
"The low turnovers were a good sign with Temple coming in (Saturday)," Crooks said. "We've got to be extra careful, or they'll slap the ball all over the place."
Flint was asked recently if it was safe to say that the teams with good play at the point were the teams doing well in the A-10.
"The teams with good players are the ones doing well," he said diplomatically.
Maybe, but only teams with smart, productive play from the point will have a shot at the championship.
If UMass is still to be that team, Crooks and DePina will have to rise to the occasion. Last night was a tremendous signal that they can.
MHERST - With just under nine minutes left in the game and the University of Massachusetts trailing Xavier, 41-36, Jonathan DePina dribbled the ball at the top of the key, urgently looking for someone to pass to as the shot clock wound down. When he didn't find anybody, he stepped forward and fired as Lionel Chalmers ran into him.
"Shannon (Crooks) swung the ball to me and I knew the shot clock was winding down so I set up for the shot and I had a good look at the hoop," DePina explained.
The shot fell and so did the ensuing free throw, completing a four-point play that sparked a 14-0 Minuteman run to put them ahead, 50-41.
"It was a pretty big play," said Xavier coach Skip Prosser. "Better teams show resolve at times like that. We didn't deal with it the right way."
Monty Mack pulls up for the J.
As the clock evaporated, the crowd of 5,247 stood and cheered as senior Monty Mack pumped his fist and Winston Smith waved his arms to the crowd to encourage the ovation.
"I was just happy to see people up there cheering for us," Mack said.
The win gave the Minutemen sole possession of second place in the Atlantic 10 Conference at 9-2 and evened their overall record at 11-11.
Mack led the Minutemen with 23 points, his seventh consecutive game with 20 or more points. Crooks added 10.
David West led Xavier (18-5, 9-3) with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
With 50 seconds left and the Minutemen comfortably ahead, the student section in the Mullins Center's north end zone began chanting, "We want Temple."
They'll get their wish Saturday when the Owls come to Amherst for a 1 p.m. game that will be televised on ABC.
Neither team scored in the clang-fest that was the first three minutes of the game. Crooks broke the ice with a 3-pointer from the left shoulder to put the Minutemen up.
The basket awakened Xavier and the Musketeers ran off seven straight points. With UMass struggling to find its shooting range, Xavier extended its lead to 15-7. That turned out to be their biggest lead in the game.
Once Mack got on target, the rest of the team followed. After he and Romain Sato traded baskets, Mack buried a three from the corner to cut UMass' deficit to five, 17-12.
He had 10 points down the first-half stretch as the Minutemen sliced the lead to two, 24-22, with 2:53 left.
Eric Williams gave UMass a spiritual lift at the end of the first half as well. In addition to grabbing four rebounds, he swished an open 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 26-25 with 1:06 left in the half.
But Chalmers hit a 3-pointer with 39 seconds left to give the visitors a 29-25 halftime lead.
UMass went inside to Micah Brand right away in the second half. On the Minutemen's first possession, he spun past West and dunked on Kevin Frey.
Mack tied the game driving to the basket and Brand split a double-team to put UMass ahead, 31-29.
The teams went back and forth until an 11-3 run put Xavier ahead, 41-36, setting up DePina's four-point play that brought UMass within a point at 41-40.
After Brand scored on an offensive rebound, Crooks bulls-eyed a three from the corner, giving UMass a 45-41 lead.
DePina highlighted the 14-0 stretch with the most improbable play of the run.
Shannon Crooks tries to create something on the baseline.
Brand alertly dumped the ball to Mack on the baseline, but the senior guard missed the short jumper. DePina (generously listed at 5-foot-9), who was sprinting through the lane, jumped up and tipped the ball back up and through the hoop, all in one motion.
"That tip-in was the play of the game," Mack said. "It got the lead to (seven) and there was no turning back from there."
"Jonathan played great," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. "He had the big four-point play and the key tip-in. He settled us down and got us going."
Sitting next to DePina in the press conference, Flint teased the senior guard about the tip-in.
"Come on, it was below the rim, let's not get geeky," said Flint, while patting DePina on the back of the head.
Mack capped the run with a trey that put UMass ahead, 50-41, with 4:23 left. Xavier never got closer than six points the rest of the way.
It was the Minuteman defense that sparked the run and produced their second-half success. The Musketeers shot just 6-for-25 after intermission against UMass' aggressive defense.
"Somebody needed to make plays, and nobody did," said Chalmers.
"We played pretty good defense in the first half, but we let them get some putbacks" Flint said. "In the second half we did a better job of not letting them rebound."
MHERST - As Jonathan DePina walked to the free-throw line with 1:31 left in the game and the University of Massachusetts leading, 54-47, Monty Mack put his arm around his longtime buddy and former South Boston High School teammate and whispered a message audible only to the two of them.
Both players smiled.
DePina stepped to the line and made both free throws.
When the second foul shot dropped through, everyone in the Mullins Center - from the students shaking their car keys mockingly at the Xavier bench to the Musketeer trainer who was in the process of packing up his stuff - knew that the game was over.
As they back-pedaled to play defense, Mack and fellow guard Shannon Crooks, who played AAU ball with the two Southie guards, both congratulated DePina.
It had been his night.
Jon DePina gave up at least seven inches to Romain Sato on defense.
But in Wednesday's win he did both in less than three minutes, highlighting the team's game clinching 14-0 run.
UMass fans, who have been critical of DePina in the past, roared their approval.
Mack and Crooks enjoyed watching DePina receive the crowd's adulation.
"Jon is me and Mont's best friend," Crooks said. "We're all best friends. When he does good, I'm happy for him. He didn't really have the kind of career he thought he was going to have, but you can't dwell in the past. You have to look forward. It's good to see him happy, hitting shots and playing real well this season."
"I think it gives him a lot of confidence," Mack said. "He made some big free throws. He hit a big 3-pointer and had the big tip-in for us. It's good to see."
The story of DePina's recruiting has been retold more times than he cares to remember. Coming out of South Boston High School, DePina signed early to play under coach Jim O'Brien at Boston College. He was part of a recruiting class that folks at the Heights thought would be the foundation that made the Eagles a permanent fixture in the Big East's upper floors.
It never happened.
DePina and fellow recruit Elton Tyler were denied admission to BC despite having grades and standardized test scores that more than met NCAA qualifying standards.
Amid embarrassing publicity, BC relented and agreed to accept DePina and Tyler, but by then it was too late. The duo, along with big men Michael Bradley and Adam Allenspach, signed elsewhere. O'Brien left to coach Ohio State and the BC program was left in shambles. Only now is it recovering.
On the court DePina didn't find true solace at UMass at first, never achieving the stardom that some people predicted he would out of high school.
He considered transferring after his sophomore year, but elected to stay.
Saying DePina has shined in his final season would be overstating things, but he's been a rare steady contributor throughout the year in an up-and-down season for UMass.
"I knew we were a good team all along," DePina said. "We just had to put things together."
"He's been heady this year," Flint said. "He doesn't get too high or too low. In the past he's gotten too low and lost some confidence. But he's playing with a lot of confidence right now and doing real well."
In the game's final seconds, DePina took in the atmosphere.
"The crowd was cheering for us. It was a big win for the coaches and everybody on the team," DePina said. "We swept one of the best teams in the conference. It felt great."
MHERST - Maybe it was the rain, or perhaps Valentine's Day commitments, but at 5,247 fans, the Mullins Center crowd fell short of expectations considering the magnitude of the game and the University of Massachusetts' recent success.
Those who braved the rain and chose to forgo romance for roundball were treated to an entertaining game Wednesday.
"You're asking the wrong guy," UMass coach Bruiser Flint said when asked about the crowd. "Everybody told me I had to win (to draw people), but we've won seven of our last eight. Not only that, we're playing one of the best teams in the league. We're playing exciting basketball and we're playing hard."
Flint criticizes the area's fan base, but was practical in his explanation as well.
"People have other things they can do now. I was listening to (NBA Commissioner) David Stern last night on The Charlie Rose Show and they asked him, "Why are you losing attendance?" He said, "Internet. People can watch games on Direct TV. They'd rather be at home drinking a beer watching the game," Flint said. "You have to be a true, true fan to go to sporting events nowadays. With basketball you play so many games that people can pick and choose which games they want to come to."
Flint promised more fans for Saturday's 1 p.m. game against Temple.
"I can't believe we only had 5,000 tonight but I bet we'll get more Saturday because people want to see Temple," he said.
LUCKY SEVEN: Senior guard Monty Mack now has scored 20 or more points in his last seven games, the longest such streak since Julius Erving strung together 11 straight 20-plus games to open the 1970-71 season.
Mack is averaging 19.4 points per game this season and 22.4 points against Atlantic 10 opponents. Xavier remained one of his favorite opponents. In six career games against the Musketeers, he's averaged 21.7 points.
UMATT: The Minutemen are 6-1 when Matt Devlin serves as the play-by-play voice for Atlantic 10 TV or ESPN. Four of UMass' final five regular-season games are on national TV - one on ABC, one on ESPN2 and two on ESPN.
MILESTONE CENTRAL: Wednesday's victory was Flint's 82nd, moving him into sole possession of fourth place on UMass' all-time win list, past Robert Curran. Harold "Kid" Gore is third with 85 ... Xavier was the second opponent this year that UMass held under 50 points. In Flint's five-year career, his teams are 17-0 when holding foes below 50 points ... Kitwana Rhymer blocked four shots Wednesday, giving him 122 in his career and moving him past Lou Roe (121) into sixth place on the UMass career list. Will Herndon is next with 128.
FLINT RESPONDS: Flint addressed recent rumors that he would be replaced next year by former Indiana coach Bob Knight. "It's goes with the territory," he said of the rumors. "But I'm disappointed because it takes away from what we've done lately."
MHERST - The University of Massachusetts' 59-49 victory over Xavier Wednesday, following St. Joseph's Tuesday win over Temple, has established a clear pecking order at the top of the Atlantic 10 Conference heading into the final regular-season games.
St. Joe's (10-1) is in the driver's seat in first place with six straight wins. It needs just one win or a loss by sixth-place Dayton to assure itself one of the league tournament's five first-round byes.
By beating the Musketeers, the Minutemen (9-2) are technically a half game ahead of Xavier (9-3), having played one fewer game. But even if Xavier pulled even record-wise, UMass would earn the higher tournament seed because of the head-to-head sweep.
Barring a collapse, both teams are good shape to secure first-round byes.
Fourth-place Temple's (8-4) two straight losses to the Musketeers and Hawks have left them in fourth, nearly out of the hunt for the regular-season title. If they don't beat the Minutemen this weekend, the Owls' three-year streak of first-round byes could be in jeopardy if Dayton (6-5) or St. Bonaventure (6-5) finishes strong.
This weekend the already-thin Owls could be without starting forward Ron Rollerson, who sprained his foot in the loss to the Hawks. Whether he'll play against UMass has yet to be determined.
* * *
Seven A-10 teams - Xavier, St. Joe's, Temple, St. Bonaventure, Dayton, Fordham and UMass - currently are eligible for postseason play. A record of .500 or better is necessary to get into the National Invitation Tournament.
|at the Mullins Center|
XAVIER (49) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Frey 33 1-8 0-0 2-9 1 3 3 Price 28 1-8 2-3 2-3 2 5 4 West 34 7-12 5-6 6-12 0 3 19 Sato 31 3-8 0-1 0-4 0 0 7 Mcafee 29 3-8 3-4 0-3 1 5 10 Chalmers 28 1-7 1-2 0-4 1 3 4 Young 5 0-1 0-1 0-0 0 1 0 Butler 12 1-2 0-0 1-3 1 3 2 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 17-54 11-17 11-38 6 23 49 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.315, FT-.647. 3-Point Goals: 4-22, .182 (Frey 1-3, Price 0-1, Sato 1-6, Mcafee 1-5, Chalmers 1-6, Young 0-1). Team rebounds: 6. Blocked shots: None. Turnovers: 13 (West 4, Frey 3, Mcafee 2, Chalmers, Price). Steals: 4 (Chalmers, Frey, Sato, West). MASSACHUSETTS (59) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Smith 27 0-7 0-0 0-2 4 3 0 Brand 29 3-5 1-5 4-10 0 1 7 Rhymer 24 1-3 1-2 0-4 0 3 3 Mack 40 7-20 6-6 0-2 2 0 23 Crooks 29 3-7 2-6 1-2 1 4 10 Depina 19 2-4 4-5 1-2 1 3 9 Rogers 12 2-3 0-2 1-3 0 1 4 Blizzard 5 0-0 0-0 0-1 0 3 0 Williams 15 1-3 0-0 2-4 1 2 3 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 19-52 14-26 9-30 9 20 59 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.365, FT-.538. 3-Point Goals: 7-17, .412 (Mack 3-10, Crooks 2-4, Depina 1-2, Williams 1-1). Team rebounds: 4. Blocked shots: 6 (Rhymer 4, Brand, Blizzard). Turnovers: 8 (Crooks 3, Blizzard 2, Brand 2, Rhymer). Steals: 6 (Smith 3, Brand, Rhymer, Williams). __________________________________ Xavier 29 20 - 49 Massachusetts 25 34 - 59 __________________________________ Technical fouls: None. A: 5,247. Officials: Donnie Gray, Ken Clark, Richard San Fillipo.