HILADELPHIA — They were playing for themselves, the preservation of their NCAA men's basketball tournament dream and their coach. The side the University of Massachusetts men's basketball players are taking in this Bruiser Flint controversy is now clear.
Shannon Crooks takes the J amongst the Hawk defense.
"We've been playing, we've been fighting," Flint said after UMass (15-14) clinched eligibility for the NIT, where at least a .500 record is required. But the Minutemen are hunting bigger game - their first Atlantic 10 title since 1996, and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.
With a victory in tonight's 6 p.m. game against the survivor of last night's Temple-George Washington semifinal winner, UMass will achieve both, culminating a desperate scramble back from a 2-9 start. It's the first time in Flint's five-year career that UMass has reached the final.
"I think we'll be disappointed if we don't win the whole thing," UMass guard Shannon Crooks said. "Our goal is to go to the NCAA's. We went to the NIT last year, and it wasn't the best experience."
Last night, St. Joseph's Hawks wiped out an early 28-12 UMass lead with a 25-4 run in the final nine minutes of the first half. The regular-season champion Hawks (25-6), a lock for the NCAA tournament, led 37-32 at halftime.
"Did halftime come at the right time for us? Well, it meant they'd finally stop scoring baskets," Flint cracked.
The Hawks, who had erased a 19-point deficit in an 84-69 win over UMass Feb. 27, led 59-53 with 6:50 left. But Monty Mack, who scored 27 points, hit a 3-point shot to start a 16-6 run, and the Minutemen led 69-65 with 2:54 left.
"The first time we played them, they hit us with a knockout punch and we didn't get up," said Mack, who has scored 56 points on 19 for 29 shooting in this tournament. "But this time, we got up."
UMass was leading 69-68 when Mack hit a layup, and Kitwana Rhymer (15 points, 13 rebounds) blocked a shot by Marvin O'Connor, who scored 26 points but shot only 4 for 13 in the second half.
"I think every time I block a shot, it charges everybody up," said Rhymer, the A-10's leading shot blocker and defensive player of the year. "That was a big-time block."
An O'Connor 3-pointer fell short moments later, and when the ball came loose, UMass guard Jonathan DePina sprawled to get possession and call a key timeout with 1:10 layup.
Jonathan DePina fearlessly takes it to the hoop.
"I just wanted to knock one down (for a four-point lead)," DePina said. "Anything can happen these days."
Actually, the Minutemen aren't celebrating yet.
"I'm telling the guys that we've still got one more game to play hard," forward Eric Williams said. "If we win that, that's when I'll cheer."
Flint thought Crooks' tireless defense on O'Connor paid off.
"Shannon played him the same way he played (St. Bonaventure's) Kevin Houston in the quarterfinal," Flint said. "O'Connor scored 26, but he needed 23 shots to do it, and he had to work so hard for everything that it looked like he didn't have his legs at the end."
After building an early 28-12 lead, the Minutemen went scoreless for 6:35, and a 14-0 St. Joseph's run made it 28-26.
Trailing by five at the break, UMass came back for a 41-40 lead. Mack's 3-pointer sparked a six-point run for a 59-59 tie with 5:30 left.
"We told them at halftime that all we really needed to do to win was be patient," said Flint, who thinks UMass learned valuable lessons from its Feb. 27 loss to the Hawks. He is also clearly proud of this team.
"Wins and losses come and go," said Flint, who won his 86th career game and moved into third place all-time on the UMass coaching victory chart, breaking a tie with Harold "Kid" Gore and trailing only Jack Leaman and John Calipari. "But my kids and their effort, and how they play, is what's important to me."
HILADELPHIA — The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team has been trying to take them one at a time, but junior guard Shannon Crooks got a little ahead of himself in looking at the other side of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament bracket.
Asked about UMass' chances in tonight's final, Crooks started describing the challenge of playing Temple. The problem was that the Temple-George Washington semifinal at First Union Spectrum had not yet begun. Temple trailed most of the way before prevailing 77-76.
"We know they've got (Lynn) Greer and (Quincy) Wadley," Crooks analyzed after UMass' 75-70 semifinal victory over St. Joseph's. Realizing he was eliminating George Washington too soon, Crooks pulled his shirt over his head in sheepish embarrassment.
Temple proved Crooks right.
Crooks was better at looking backward than forward. He said the 84-69 loss to St. Joseph's Feb. 27 was a good lesson for UMass, which kept its poise after losing a 16-point lead last night.
"It was good to feel them out, play against (Hawks' freshman point guard) Jameer Nelson and see what he's about," Crooks said. "We learned from our mistakes, and knew we had to play two halves instead of one."
The Minutemen blew a 19-point lead in the Feb. 27 loss. They held Nelson to six points and 1-for-5 shooting last night, even though he had eight assists.
UMass was determined to exploit its inside game, which the Minutemen abandoned in the first St. Joseph's meeting. With Micah Brand running into foul trouble, reserve big men Jackie Rogers and Eric Williams combined for 37 minutes.
"I knew I had to step up," said Rogers, who had six points with six rebounds. "They were double teaming me when I got the ball." Rogers had scored 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting in the first St. Joseph's game.
The game was hotly contested, with technicals assessed to UMass' Brand and Winston Smith, and Na'im Crenshaw and Bill Phillips of St. Joseph's.
UMass athletic director Bob Marcum disputed comments made by entertainer and UMass alum Bill Cosby, who told the Union-News Thursday that it was his understanding that Flint was out as UMass coach next year. Marcum has insisted that no decision will be made until the season is over.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint has beaten St. Joseph's, his alma mater, in seven of his last eight tries . . . If UMass loses tonight, the NIT selection committee will review its credentials tomorrow night, after NCAA selections are announced.
HILADELPHIA — After collapsing against St. Joseph's 10 days earlier, the urge for survival hit the breaking point last night for UMass in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Kitwana Rhymer and Alexandre Sazonov battle for the rock.
And that's what happened in last night's 75-70 victory over St. Joseph's (25-6). The Minutemen held their ground, and swung back.
``The last time they just shook us,'' said center Kitwana Rhymer, who augmented 27 points from Monty Mack with a 15-point, 13-rebound performance that dominated the Hawks' front line down the stretch. ``We couldn't stop ourselves from stumbling. But this time when they hit us, we turned around and got them with an uppercut.''
On Feb. 27, UMass grabbed a 19-point lead and led by 16 at halftime, but St. Joseph's stormed back in the second half to win, 84-69.
Last night's victory, which essentially guaranteed the Minutemen (15-14) at least an NIT berth because of their status as a Top 100 team, sends them into tonight's A-10 championship game against Temple with a solid shot at the NCAA tournament. Temple beat George Washington, 77-76, in the other semifinal last night.
Imagine that. Few, if any, teams start the season at 2-9, and find themselves in this position. The win was the 86th of Flint's career, moving him past Harold Gore into third place on UMass' all-time wins list.
``Everyone knew that we could reach the championship game. I don't think anyone's surprised - well, some, maybe,'' said Flint, his mind turning those who want a new coach at UMass.
The Minutemen took Flint's boxing metaphors to heart. Though Hawks guard Marvin O'Connor predictably lit up the Minutemen during St. Joe's comeback for a 37-32 halftime lead, scoring 11 of his 26 points over the last 2:07 of the first half, UMass recovered.
With Mack and O'Connor trading 3-pointers down the stretch, and Rhymer going after every rebound, the Minutemen made their move over the last 4:24.
Trailing 65-61, Crooks triggered an 8-0 run with a baseline drive to take a 69-65 lead.
The Hawks hit three free throws, but Mack scored on a drive for a 71-68 lead. After an O'Connor airball, Jonathan DePina dove to recover the loose-ball rebound. DePina and Rymer missed shots, but Jackie Rogers grabbed the rebound and looped a five-foot hook for a 73-68 lead.
HILADELPHIA — All eyes in Amherst were on UMass coach Bruiser Flint and his Minutemen as they beat St. Joseph's, 75-70, in last night's Atlantic 10 semifinal game, including the man who will make the ultimate call on the coach's fate.
Chancellor David Scott stressed that contrary to the perception that his role in the process has decreased because of his outgoing status, he is indeed the person who will have the final say on Flint.
``I have until the end of my term, just like President Clinton, and I'm not planning to issue any pardons,'' said Scott, who will step down in July.
Scott also played the decisive role last year, after UMass athletic director Bob Marcum made a push to have Flint dismissed. Scott said the process will follow the same path this time, with Marcum presenting a recommendation, followed by the chancellor's ruling.
``We always rely on the expertise of our people in these matters, but I have to make my own assessment,'' said Scott, whose view of Flint's success this season reflects the Minutemen's wild ride, from a 2-9 start to the 15-14 team that has reached the A-10 title game. ``He's done a lot of good things this year, with a number of good achievements. His team has performed well athletically and academically. It was a bad start, and they've gained momentum. One needs to understand all of the reasons for that.''
Scott, as a result, plans to listen to all of the arguments, including the link between the team's performance and declining revenue over the last five years.
That will be weighed against the team's graduation rate - a steady success under Flint - as well as its on-court performance.
``Revenues are important,'' Scott said. ``But it's a balance of things. It's not a single factor. It's important to be competitive on one's league. And if you're competitive, you'll also gain revenues.''
Jonathan DePina, who started his second straight game at point guard last night, came up with perhaps the biggest hustle play of the season when he dove for a loose-ball rebound and called timeout with just under a minute left. He finished with 11 points, six assists and five rebounds and seven turnovers. But Shannon Crooks made up the difference in the latter department, finishing with 11 points, five assists and no turnovers in 36 minutes. DePina and Monty Mack each played 38 minutes.
It ain't over . . .
Crooks ended up tossing a towel over his head in embarrassment after making a particularly bad gaffe during the press conference when asked to talk about playing in tonight's championship game.
Quite unsolicited, he started talking about the Temple backcourt, until Mack leaned over to remind Crooks that Temple and George Washington were still playing. . . .
Perhaps the best measure of UMass' defense last night was the fact that Marvin O'Connor and Na'im Crenshaw combined to shoot 13-for-35. . . .
Speedy Morris was fired yesterday after 15 years as basketball coach at La Salle, which has not had a winning record since 1993.
he St. Joseph's Hawks went into the Atlantic Ten Conference tournament knowing that their name will pop up tomorrow on the NCAA's selection show, so this exercise at the Spectrum was a dress rehearsal for March Madness of sorts.
Phil Martelli tried to rally his troops, but UMass hung tough and took the victory.
Last night, after being booted out of the A-10 semifinals by desperate Massachusetts, 75-70, they went back to Hawk Hill wondering if all the parts and all the intangibles that had carried them through a magical season were still in place.
"We really have been enjoying our success, and maybe we enjoyed it too much," Marvin O'Connor said after his 26 points failed to save St. Joe's. "I think maybe we've lost a tad bit of focus on what we're doing. We have to get back to where we were and jump on teams early."
In a physical, contentious game that often resembled guerrilla warfare, the top-seeded Hawks played in fits and spurts before the fourth-seeded Minutemen flexed their muscles in the final seven minutes to advance to tonight's championship game. The winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
For UMass (15-14), the win may have taken some heat off coach James "Bruiser" Flint, the former St. Joseph's guard whose job is thought to be in jeopardy.
Meantime, the loss ended a week of struggle for the Hawks (25-6), a week during which they lost two of three games. Surely, St. Joe's dropped lower on the NCAA's seeding chart, increasing the chances it will draw a more difficult first-round matchup when it receives the first at-large invitation in the school's history.
Last Saturday, La Salle ended St. Joe's 10-game winning streak in the final regular-season game. The Hawks needed a late surge to avenge that loss to the Explorers on Thursday in the conference tournament.
Last night, the Hawks rubbed out a 28-12 UMass lead to take a 37-32 halftime advantage.
"Truthfully, I was kind of sorry to see the half end," said St. Joe's guard Na'im Crenshaw, who scored 11 points off the bench.
Flailing elbows, yanking jerseys, and talking trash in a game that had four technical fouls - two on each team - the Hawks and the Minutemen went nose to nose during a tense second half.
"I think that might have been the biggest battle since I've been here," said UMass senior sharpshooter Monty Mack, who shot 10 for 16 and scored 27 points, including 5 for 10 from three-point distance.
"It was getting real physical out there. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. It was very competitive."
Despite Mack's impressive shooting display, the main difference between the two teams was UMass' strength on the inside. Kitwana Rhymer, the brawny 6-foot, 10-inch, 256-pound senior center, showed why the coaches voted him the conference's top defensive player. The Hawks' two centers - Damian Reid and Alexandre Sazonov - combined for only six points and eight rebounds, while Rhymer collected 15 points and 13 boards, five off the offensive glass.
After O'Connor gave the Hawks a 59-53 lead by draining a long three-pointer with just under seven minutes remaining, the Minutemen went on a 16-6 run. Mack started it with a three-pointer and Rhymer had three baskets and a free throw.
Down 69-65, the Hawks climbed within 1, at 69-68, on free throws from Bill Phillips, who had 16 points and nine rebounds, and Sazonov. Then came the final two minutes.
Mack drove for a basket and a 71-68 UMass lead. Rhymer came out and partially blocked a shot by O'Connor, who has made so many clutch shots for the Hawks this season.
O'Connor kept trying, but his final three shots from beyond the three-point stripe were well short, and a putback by Sazonov rolled around the rim and out.
Afterward, St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said the Hawks would practice tomorrow, then watch television to learn their first-round opponent and destination.
"There's a sense of disappointment that we didn't win," he said. "We'd been making plays all year and we didn't get that one play we needed. Now we have to be big boys and go on, and hope that come Sunday somebody calls our name."
he poet had it wrong. It's not April that is the cruelest month, it's March.
March is the month of the sweet madness, but it is also the month of dreams abruptly denied and hearts broken like cheap china.
The Hawk bench watched helplessly as the under-dog Minutemen won.
Oh, The Hawk isn't dead yet. And besides, as we know from legend, The Hawk Will Never Die anyway. But the bird of lore took a serious shot to the pin feathers last night when UMass, full of grit and gristle, eliminated St. Joe's from the Atlantic Ten Conference tournament, 75-70 at the First Union Spectrum.
It wasn't a crippling defeat because, thanks to their 25 wins and the regular-season conference championship, the 21st-ranked Hawks were already assured of a berth in the NCAA tournament.
But now they enter the realm of one-and-done, and this defeat will cost them in the seedings - at least one spot for sure, you would think, and perhaps two.
So if they had been, say, a No.5 coming in, they may now only be a No.6 or No.7. It also means the quality of their opponent goes up a notch or so.
The defeat also means two losses in their last three games, against undistinguished opponents to boot, and while the selection committee tends to smile and wink at teams that are on a roll, it frowns at those who seem to have temporarily lost their way. A team in disfavor could get exiled to Boise. Or, even worse, Uniondale, Long Island.
"We have to be big boys and take this and go on," coach Phil Martelli said. "We will practice Sunday and hope that someone calls us."
The call will come, of course, and the attendant invitation to go dancing that accompanies it, and he and his players know it. What they also know is that their status as favored son has been diminished.
And they know now that there is no more comfort zone for them. Their next defeat is their last one.
"The next loss and we're collecting uniforms," Martelli said.
Such a prospect can make a team tense, or make it determined.
What UMass did was expose the Hawks' vulnerable area, which is inside. Permitted to be physical, the Minutemen worked over the Hawks in the paint, roughed them up and found some supplemental scoring.
"I wish we'd played faster," Martelli said. "I think we're at our best when we play fast. And we'll need to play faster against teams that will try to be physical with us."
UMass had a little something to do with determining the pace of play. The Minutemen want the tempo deliberate because they have only one scorer, the guard Monty Mack, and depend on their defense for whatever they can get.
So last night's game was a nice duel between contrasting styles. Ironically, the team that relies on its defense produced quite an offensive burst - the Minutemen shot 54 percent. At the same time they held the Hawks to 38 percent.
"You can count on one hand the number of times we've been held under 40 percent this season," Martelli said.
St. Joe's has made a habit of falling in serious arrears against UMass. The Hawks trailed by 19 nine days ago, and ended up winning by 15. Last night, the Hawks fell behind 21-6 and then 28-12, and yet came back to lead by five at halftime when O'Connor did his best microwave impersonation.
But UMass was able to muscle the Hawks inside. It was a chippy game that teetered on the brink of getting out of hand. The fouls were hard. Except for O'Connor and Bill Phillips, the Hawks scuffled for scoring.
O'Connor missed his first five shots, then made five in a row. He and Mack engaged in dueling three-balls, most of them from deep, deep, deep.
"We're not used to losing," O'Connor said. "We need to get back to playing our brand of basketball, and jump on teams early. Maybe we're enjoying our success too much and losing a tad bit of focus."
Martelli thought he saw his players enjoying themselves, which he interprets as a favorable sign. His reasoning is that it is better to play free and loose than tighten up thinking about the consequences of defeat.
While it was a sobering moment for the Hawks, it was an exhilarating one for UMass, which had started the season 2-9 and then righted itself. The Minutemen are coached by James Flint, known to all as Bruiser, especially on Hawk Hill where he shone as a point guard not so long ago.
The Hawk umbilical is still tied to him. Martelli and his staff were hearty and genuine in their postgame congratulations. They were happy for Bruiser.
The only way he gets in the tournament is to win again tonight. He and his players have only today guaranteed to them.
The Hawks' consolation is that they are assured of at least one more tomorrow. But in March, squandered tomorrows are never retrievable.
his looked just like the game Massachusetts and St. Joseph's had played 10 days before on the other side of town. There was one not-so-subtle difference. This time, the Hawks overcame a 16-point UMass lead in the first half.
Jonathan DePina stays with Jameer Nelson step for step. The much-heralded Nelson was held to 6 points.
And the Minutemen, playing for their NCAA Tournament lives and perhaps the immediate coaching life of Bruiser Flint, refused to yield. Where most teams would have given it up against the A-10's regular-season champs, a team that had outplayed and outwilled its opponents all season, UMass didn't see it that way.
St. Joe's did enough good things to win on most nights. This wasn't most nights. This was UMass' night.
In what was in every sense a basketball game masquerading as a hockey game, UMass won the final few minutes and the game, 75-70. The Minutemen will play for the A-10 championship tonight against Temple, their first final since 1996, when they finished off their incredible run of five straight titles.
St. Joe's (25-6) will have to be content with the school's first at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. As consolation prizes go, there are much worse.
"There is a sense of disappointment in that we didn't get done what we came to get done which was to win tonight," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. "There was no 'let's win a championship' or anything like that."
UMass (15-14) began its season 2-9. That these players have fought back to give themselves a chance at an NCAA bid is quite amazing.
The Hawks, of course, were picked to finish sixth in the regular season. So nothing, not even a loss in the semis, can diminish what they've done. What this and the loss to La Salle Saturday will do is hurt their NCAA seeding. Still, they will get a chance to play. What they will have to do is start playing earlier in games.
UMass led, 28-12, after 11 minutes. By halftime, the Hawks led, 37-32.
How? Marvin O'Connor. He didn't score 18 points in 57 seconds. He did score nine (all on threes from the top of the key off down screens) in 68 seconds. He did score 15 points in the half's final 7 minutes. He did get two steals and took them in for a layup and a dunk, respectively.
The Hawks' defensive intensity was the same as it was in the second half at the Fieldhouse. UMass could hardly make a pass or dribble. Shots were out of the question.
Then, halftime came and UMass punched back. The Hawks had short leads. Then, they had no lead. Every time they threatened to run away, UMass had an answer.
Finally, it looked as if the Hawks had it when Na'im Crenshaw (11 points) and O'Connor (26 points) nailed consecutive threes to make it 65-61 with 4 minutes, 42 seconds left.
The defense, it turned out, wasn't great. The offense, however, was the problem. St. Joe's did not make another basket until 3 seconds were left in the game. They had three shots blocked. They tossed up two air balls. They missed 10 in a row.
The Hawks trailed by 19 late in the first half in the Feb. 27 game. They won by 15. There was much on the line for St. Joe's that night. The entire season was on the line for the Minutemen last night.
"We really have enjoyed our success," O'Connor said. "Maybe we have been enjoying it too much. We're losing just a tad bit of focus. . .The past games, we've been fighting our way back every game and I think that really needs to be addressed."
UMass held the A-10's best shooting team to 38.3 percent, only the third time all season the Hawks were under 40 percent. They shot just 31.4 percent in the second half. And the Minutemen, who jammed the ball inside just as they did at St. Joe's, shot 52.9 percent themselves.
UMass got 27 from Monty Mack, one of the great scorers in A-10 history. And they got 37 from the trifecta of Shannon Crooks (11), Kitwana Rhymer (15) and Jonathan DiPina (11). The Hawks were beaten on the boards, 37-30. The Hawks felt as if they'd been beaten up.
"Things happen," Crenshaw said. "We didn't get any calls. They didn't go our way. Things happen."
Flint, of course, did not care about any of that. He did not care that there was one double-technical and two other technicals in the game. He just cared that his team was still alive.
"We talked about it at halftime and said, 'Look, we took the first punch,' " Flint said. "We just had to battle back. We scrapped for every loose ball, every loose rebound."
Bill Phillips had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Hawks. But three other starters combined to score just 12. Point guard Jameer Nelson, who nearly had a triple-double against La Salle on Thursday, had six points, eight assists and four turnovers.
"We lost two out of our last three and we're really not used to losing," O'Connor said.
HILADELPHIA - Before the game started, there was considerable speculation that Friday night's game might be Bruiser Flint's last as the coach of the University of Massachusetts. It turned out to be his finest.
Shannon Crooks causes Marvin O'Connor to lose the handle.
Micah Brand only scored two points for UMass, but his play in the game's 46th minute was huge. His jump hook tied the game at 65-65 with 3:48 remaining. At the other end he swatted Damian Reid's shot, which started a fast break that Monty Mack finished with a floater on the baseline. The basket put UMass ahead 67-65, a lead it never surrendered.
"It was very big," Brand said. "Monty went down and scored, and that was pretty much the game."
Not quite, but almost.
Na'im Crenshaw drove at the other end, but Shannon Crooks blocked his shot. Jonathan DePina snared the rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws to give the Minutemen a 69-65 lead going into an official timeout.
St. Joe's (25-6) cut the lead to one on three free throws, but Mack answered with another floater to put UMass ahead 71-68 with 2:05 remaining. Marvin O'Connor drove into the lane, but Kitwana Rhymer delivered the third big late-game block, swatting the ball off the backboard.
After DePina turned the ball over, O'Connor tried to tie it with a three, but it clanged out. The ball skipped off several hands and rolled toward the far sideline, but DePina jumped on top of it and called timeout with 1:10 remaining.
Trying to put the game away, DePina missed a jumper and Rhymer missed a put-back dunk attempt, but Jackie Rogers came up with the rebound. His jump hook dropped in with 31 seconds left to put the Minutemen ahead 73-68.
From there, even missed free throws by Rhymer and Ronell Blizzard couldn't keep the Minutemen from winning. DePina made two free throws with two seconds remaining to clinch the win.
"I just wanted the first one to go in," DePina said. "When it did, I knew we were going to win the game."
Mack led UMass with 27 points, while Rhymer had 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Crooks and DePina each scored 11 points.
O'Connor had 26 to lead St. Joe's, while Bill Phillips added 16.
"Both teams wanted to win, so both teams played really hard," Mack said. "The atmosphere was great. I loved it."
"There is a sense of disappointment," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "We didn't get done what we came to get done."
The Minutemen blew a 19-point lead in their loss to the Hawks Feb. 27, and in Friday's first half it looked like they might relive the nightmare.
Just as in the teams' first meeting, the Minutemen took a big early lead. Mack led the early charge with 13 points as UMass took a 28-12 advantage 10:55 into the game.
But following the Feb. 27 script, the Hawks erased the UMass lead in a hurry. O'Connor hadn't scored up until that point, but he stepped on the gas and took over. He had four points in a 14-0 Hawk run that brought the top seed within two at 28-26 with 4:26 remaining.
DePina's pull-up jumper at the buzzer ended an almost seven-minute long UMass scoring drought., but O'Connor answered with a 3-pointer.
Mack drained a jumper from the baseline, but O'Connor hit another trey to tie the game at 32-32 with 1:41 remaining.
The burst fired up the pro-Hawk crowd and St. Joe's fed off its energy. O'Connor turned a pair of UMass turnovers into a three and a breakaway layup in the final minute and the Hawks headed to the locker room with a 37-32 lead.
"I told our guys, 'Hey we're all right. We took the hit, now we just gotta hit back," Flint said.
They did. Intermission came at the right time for the Minutemen, who regrouped and regained some composure. A spin hook by Rhymer and a 3-pointer by Mack tied the game at 37-37, 2:47 into the half.
O'Connor nailed a three, but two Mack free throws and a lay-in by Rhymer put UMass ahead 41-40.
St. Joe's pulled back ahead, but UMass stayed close. Rhymer split a double-team and laid the ball in to tie the game at 59-59 with 5:36 remaining.
The Hawks sandwiched treys from Na'im Crenshaw and O'Connor around a Rhymer hook to take a 65-61 lead, but the Minutemen scored the next six points, capped by Brand's hook that started the final run.
HILADELPHIA - It was all too familiar for the University of Massachusetts fans.
Ten days ago, they watched as their Minutemen took a 19-point lead over St. Joseph's at Hawk Hill only to see it evaporate in the second half as the Hawks won 84-69.
Micah Brand, in foul trouble for much of the game, watches anxiously from the bench.
But the Minutemen didn't fold this time. Instead, they responded and shocked the No. 21 nationally ranked Hawks to bring themselves within a game of the NCAA Tournament.
"We just had to be patient. We've been down before at the half," Monty Mack said. "We just to come out and play hard."
"We knew all along we were a good team," UMass senior guard Jonathan DePina said. "We feel very good right now. We're putting everything together at the right time. It would be a great story if we could come down here and win the tournament and make it to the NCAA Tournament."
It sure would. Since mid-December, the Minutemen have known that their NCAA Tournament dreams would live or die in the first week of March. When they arrived in the City of Brotherly Love, those dreams looked all but dead. After turning around a 2-9 start, they appeared to have run out of gas.
They blew the lead against the Hawks on Feb. 27, and followed that by pitching a stinker against St. Bonaventure for a 66-59 loss on senior day March 3. UMass looked like a candidate for a short stay in Philadelphia. But Mack wasn't ready for his career to end. He's been brilliant, scoring 56 points in the two games and is the leading candidate to be the tournament's MVP if the Minutemen can win Saturday.
Friday's win guaranteed that the worst UMass can finish the season is 15-15, which would qualify the Minutemen for at least the National Invitational Tournament. As a major conference school on the East Coast, UMass would be a near lock to be invited.
But the Minutemen have set their sights on returning to the Big Dance for the first time since 1997-98. "We went to the NIT last year and it didn't feel really good," said junior guard Shannon Crooks. "We want to go to the NCAA Tournament. That's our main goal. We're not even thinking about the NIT."
UMass will get Temple in the final, The teams split their regular-season games, each winning on the other's home court. "We have to come and play hard the way we did tonight and do the things that we had to do," Mack said.
In the final seconds, Mack pumped his fist, while Winston Smith waved his arms to the UMass fans, who cheered wildly as they walked off the court. When he arrived in his hometown, people were asking Flint if he thought he'd be fired. With that backdrop he smiled a wry grin when reporters asked him about a possible trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"I knew even when we were down that we could win some games in the Atlantic 10," Flint said.
As people walked out of the UMass locker room, someone turned to Flint and said "See you tomorrow." Flint scratched his chin. "See you tomorrow. Imagine that."
HILADELPHIA — This story has the touch of magic. A horrible start to the season. A coach probably within hours of getting fired. A season about to come to a crashing end following a stunning collapse.
The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team took countless jabs all season, especially during the Minutemen's staggering 2-9 start.
The UMass bench goes crazy as the team avenged their earlier loss to the Hawks.
Flint's team, as it has done time and again since January, took care of business in last night's semifinal, a remarkable 75-70 win over top-seeded St. Joseph's at the Spectrum.
The victory did a few things. It all but guaranteed that no matter what happens tonight, the Minutemen (15-14) will be playing in the postseason since the National Invitation Tournament routinely takes every major conference team with at least a .500 record.
But it also cast considerable doubt on Flint's status - in a positive sense.
The prevailing theory the past several weeks was anything short of an NCAA Tournament bid would cost Flint his job.
And when UMass saw its 28-12 first-half lead erased by a 25-4 St. Joe's burst, it brought back memories of the Minutemen's 19-point first-half lead that had evaporated in their a 84-69 regular-season loss to the Hawks, and had the doom sayers writing Flint's epitaphs after five years in Amherst.
Flint, who has been under siege the past two years - and particularly the past few weeks - simply told his team to keep its head up and not panic.
''I told them we'll be all right,'' he said, with a smile and a sigh after the game. ''We took their punches and now we've got to hit back.''
This time, the Minutemen did. Slowly and steadily and led by senior guard Monty Mack (a game-high 27 points) the Minutemen did not let the Hawks fly away as they had done during in their earlier game.
''We just battled back, didn't panic,'' said Mack, who had said earlier in the week that he had brought a week's worth of clothes. ''We took their best shot and gave it right back.''
St. Joe's (25-6) threw a lot of shots, led by guard Marvin O'Connor, who can ignite a team with his streaky shooting. And while O'Connor scored a team-high 26 points, he connected on only 9 of 23 shots.
The Minutemen did not panic and when center Kitwana Rhymer (15 points, 11 rebounds) put in a layup, the Minutemen had drawn even at 59-59.
From that point on, it was a game in which each team looked for an edge, a break. Whether it was a Shannon Crooks steal or a Jonathan DePina assist, the Minutemen played like their season was in jeopardy, which it obviously was.
Finally, when Mack hit a jumper with 3:18 left, the Minutemen had a 67-65 lead. The counterpunching worked and St. Joe's, which was basically playing for an NCAA Tournament seed, while UMass was playing for survival, had no answer.
The Minutemen are now one victory away from the Big Dance.
Flint tried to downplay the significance of that - to a point. ''A season has three parts,'' he said. ''The second and third parts have been pretty good. But I don't think anyone is surprised at what we are doing. Everybody knew coming in to this, we were capable of winning the championship.''
Then he thought of the critics who have wanted his dismissal. ''Well maybe some people were surprised.''
But since January and that 2-9 start, UMass is 13-5. With last night's win, it has beaten every team in the league at least once.
Flint understands there are pot holes ahead. A loss tonight would mean an NIT bid, but would hardly guarantee a contract extension. And another one-and-done effort in the NIT (the Minutemen lost to Siena last year) would probably punch Flint's ticket out of Amherst.
But a victory would almost guarantee athletic director Bob Marcum offering Flint a contract extension.
Few would have thought such a scenario was even a possibility a few weeks ago.
For now, however, the Minutemen are savoring a journey which they hope will carry them to some NCAA subregional site next week.
''See you on [selection] Sunday,'' said Marcum with a laugh - and a hope - as he walked out of the Spectrum.
|Massachusetts Minutemen (4 seed)||75|
|St. Joseph's Hawks (1 seed) (#21)||70|
|Atlantic-10 Tournament Semi-Final|
at the First Union Spectrum,
MASSACHUSETTS (75) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Crooks 36 4-9 3-4 0-2 5 1 11 Brand 16 1-3 0-0 0-2 0 5 2 Rhymer 27 6-11 3-7 5-13 1 2 15 Depina 38 2-5 6-6 0-5 6 1 11 Mack 38 10-16 2-2 0-1 2 2 27 Rogers 21 3-4 0-0 1-6 1 0 6 Blizzard 0 0-0 0-2 0-1 0 0 0 Smith 8 0-1 0-0 0-2 3 3 0 Williams 16 1-2 1-2 1-3 1 2 3 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 27-51 15-23 7-35 19 16 75 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.529, FT-.652. 3-Point Goals: 6-13, .462 (Crooks 0-1, Depina 1-1, Mack 5-10, Williams 0-1). Team rebounds: 2. Blocked shots: 5 (Williams 2, Crooks, Brand, Rhymer). Turnovers: 15 (Depina 7, Rhymer 3, Williams 2, Brand, Mack, Smith). Steals: 5 (Crooks 3, Brand, Rhymer). ST JOSEPHS PA (70) fg ft rb min m-a m-a o-t a pf tp Wilkins 17 1-4 2-2 1-1 0 1 4 Phillips 33 7-10 1-2 3-9 1 2 16 Reid 21 1-2 0-0 0-2 1 3 2 Oconnor 35 9-23 2-2 2-2 1 4 26 Nelson 35 1-5 4-4 0-3 8 2 6 Barley 5 0-0 0-0 0-0 1 1 0 Crenshaw 28 4-12 1-2 1-4 1 1 11 Woods 7 0-1 1-2 0-1 0 1 1 Sazonov 19 0-3 4-4 2-6 2 3 4 _______________________________________________ TOTALS 200 23-60 15-18 9-28 15 18 70 _______________________________________________ Percentages: FG-.383, FT-.833. 3-Point Goals: 9-29, .310 (Wilkins 0-1, Phillips 1-3, Oconnor 6-16, Nelson 0-2, Crenshaw 2-6, Woods 0-1). Team rebounds: 2. Blocked shots: 3 (Sazonov 2, Woods). Turnovers: 9 (Nelson 4, Phillips 2, Oconnor, Reid, Sazonov). Steals: 5 (Nelson 2, Oconnor 2, Wilkins). __________________________________ Massachusetts 32 43 - 75 St Josephs Pa 37 33 - 70 __________________________________ Technical fouls: Massachusetts 2 (Smith, Brand). St Josephs Pa 2 (Crenshaw, Phillips). Officials: Joe Demayo, Ken Clark, Glenn Mayborg.