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wo weeks ago would have been the perfect time for the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team to take on Xavier. The Musketeers were reeling. They had lost five of six games, including embarrassing losses to George Washington (81-60) and perennial bottom-feeder Duquesne (71-58).
They were in last place in the Atlantic 10 West and seemingly lacking confidence at 10-9.
But on Feb. 3, Xavier's fortunes changed drastically. The Musketeers shocked No. 10 Cincinnati 71-69 in the Crosstown Shootout. The win has seemingly re-energized Xavier, which has now won three straight heading into Saturday's 4 p.m. game against the Minutemen.
A big reason for the revival has been the improved play of senior point guard Lionel Chalmers who has averaged 21 points per game during the winning streak to bring his season average up to 15.4.
''Chalmers is playing better. He's really shooting the ball really well,'' UMass coach Lappas said. ''He's really good. He's having a great year. He's been underrated.''
Chalmers' scoring average is second on the Xavier roster behind fellow senior Romain Sato at 16.1 points per game.
Sato has been somewhat maligned this year after as he hasn't had the All-America season that some hoped for to fill the void left by David West's graduation. But his scoring average combined with his 7.6 rebounds per game still makes him one of the conference's most productive guards.
''He's tough, strong and he's a great offensive rebounder,'' Lappas said. ''We'll have to do some different things against him.''
Without West, Xavier has had to change its approach. After relying on West to score inside through double-teams and junk defense, the perimeter offense has become much more critical.
''Now when they need a basket, they're shooting jump shots more often than not,'' Lappas said. ''They've adjusted what they do.''
Senior Anthony Myles has become the team's top inside threat, averaging 9.7 points and 6.3 rebounds.
UMass will head into the game off a rare five-day break following Sunday's loss to Dayton. The Minutemen used the early part of the week to work on their own plays before preparing for Xavier.
''We worked on our half-court offense and our half-court defense and the different defenses that we've been playing lately,'' Lappas said.
''Usually when we have weeks off and are practicing all week, the next game we play well,'' said freshman guard Artie Bowers. ''We need to win, so hopefully we'll continue that trend.''
NOTE: Junior center Gabe Lee still leads the Atlantic 10 in total blocked shots with 45, even though he's missed the Minutemen's last six games and is out for the season. Saint Joseph's center Dwayne Jones could catch him Saturday against Rhode Island.
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com.
ith the end of an unsteady season fast approaching the Massachusetts men's basketball team will take on Xavier, Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Cintas Center.
The Minutemen (9-12, 3-6 Atlantic 10) had their winning streak snapped last Sunday with a 66-59 loss to Dayton. The Musketeers (13-9, 4-5 A-10) are currently riding a three game win streak that includes wins against No. 10 Cincinnati and A-10 foes Fordham and Richmond.
UMass has had a week to prepare itself for this weekend's game and according to freshman guard Art Bowers, rest and time has helped them out in the past.
"It's kind of good," he said. "Usually when we have weeks off we come out and play well, this is a game we need to win, so hopefully we'll come out and play well.
Head coach Steve Lappas agrees that with more time than usual, more things can get accomplished.
"We still are going to do this as a two day prep like we do most of our preps but we were able to spend some time on our stuff which is going to help us for the game on Saturday," he said. "Work on our half court offense, work on our half court defense, work on a different defense than we've been playing lately, so we've been able to at least hone in on some of our things without worrying about Xavier for a couple days."
Senior guards Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers have been major contributors for Xavier this season as well as the main producers in recent games. In the past three games, Sato has averaged 16 points, 3.7 assists and 11 rebounds, while Chalmers averaged 21 points 1.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
Prior to their 3 game streak Sato, Chalmers and the rest of the Musketeers struggled to find their rhythm. Now that they've settled in, Lappas knows that his young squad will be put to the test when it goes up against the strength and experience of Xavier, namely Sato and Chalmers.
"[Sato] is strong and he's a great offensive rebounder so those are big factors for us without a doubt," Lappas said.
"I just heard he's a real good shooter," freshman guard Art Bowers said of Sato. "Very physically strong. He's one of the marquee players in the Atlantic 10."
"[Chalmers] is really good," Lappas said. "He's having a great year shooting very well from three doing a lot of good things. He's been underrated, when you play with West and Sato and he was hurt ... so he kind of went under the radar a little bit for this year, but he's a very good player."
Bowers has been a key player for UMass over the past few games, and although he struggled against Dayton, he knows that this is an important game in helping to determine his teams' future.
"I just do my regular routine, right now just working off this past week," Bowers said. "When my shots not working, what else can I do to help the team? Not rely on my shot. But I've definitely been working on it so when I come against Xavier I'll definitely be ready to play.
"They're definitely one of the top teams," Bowers said of Xavier. "We know in order to continue the season and play in the post season this is one of the teams we need to beat."
The Musketeers are in a similar situation to the Minutemen offensively, as they are forced to play a smaller rotation since they too only have one big man.
"They're kind of going to a four out one in a lot of the time with [Anthony] Myles being their only big guy and I think they've found some success with that," Lappas said.
"They've settled in on a rotation," he said. "They're not playing as many guys as many minutes as they were earlier and I know against Richmond they played really six guys so I think they shortened the rotation and the guys that they have playing are playing better."
According to Lappas one of the biggest problems for his team this season has been their lack of experience. Experience can't be taught, but it's what beat UMass last Sunday and the Minutemen need to find a way to defend against it.
"You keep teaching them," Lappas said, "You hope the natural progression that's going to take place with their experience is happening, which it is ... no matter what we do in practice we're not going to give our guys the experience that Sato and Chalmers and Myles have, we're just not going to be able to do that. But we can do some things to help them and to make that experience factor not as big of a gap."
ustin Cage did not know it until the game was over, but he had a somewhat distinguished fan evaluating him during Saturday's game between Xavier and Massachusetts at Cintas Center.
After watching her younger cousin play the best game of his brief Xavier career, R&B recording artist Athena Cage had to say she was rather impressed. She was waiting outside the Xavier locker room to congratulate Cage, a 6-foot-6 freshman forward, who led Xavier to a 64-44 win against UMass.
Cage put up career highs of 12 points and six assists to go with five rebounds as Xavier won its fourth straight game, improving to 14-9 and 5-5 in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Cage become the first freshman to lead Xavier in scoring in a single game since current senior Romain Sato scored 19 points in a Feb. 10, 2001, win against Temple.
"If he plays like this, I'll have to come to all the games," Athena Cage said. "This is the first college game I've seen him play. I was telling his mom that I can just see his improvement and his confidence growing."
That is exactly what Xavier's coaching staff hoped would happen when coach Thad Matta inserted Cage into the starting lineup four games ago against Cincinnati.
In his new role, Cage brought an immediate defensive presence but had not produced in bulk offensively until he hit a pair of 3-pointers Saturday in the first five minutes.
Art Bowers tries to keet up with Justin Doellman.
"Coach kept telling me to have confidence, shoot the ball," Cage said. "A lot of times on tape, I see that I'm open, but I wouldn't shoot. My dad is always telling me to shoot the ball. Don't overdo it, but just get your confidence and get your rhythm."
Learning to play on the college level has been a season-long process for Cage. Indiana's Mr. Basketball as a senior last season at Indianapolis Pike, Cage came to Xavier with some questions about his role.
"I think back to November and December and grabbing him during timeouts and saying, 'Play basketball,' " Matta said. " 'Be aggressive. Don't worry about anything, just make plays.' I think he's really settled in with that."
It helps that Cage has worked on his game individually as much as any Xavier player this season, along with freshman Justin Doellman, who scored 11 points Saturday. The two have moved into the starting lineup, with Doellman averaging 6.2 points, and Cage 5.0 points.
"With those two guys, they're the two that are the last ones to leave the gym every day, and they're the first ones in there every day," Matta said. "On a day off, you look down and hear the ball bouncing, and they're the ones in there."
Cage isn't one to heap glory upon himself, or even bring up that he got his points by taking just six shots. He's more likely to discuss his role as a defender and how he looks to find shots for Sato, Chalmers and senior Anthony Myles.
But, like any player, he appreciates the recognition that comes with filling up the scoring column.
"I'm really just getting comfortable and everything," Cage said. "It kind of feels good when your shot goes in."
INCINNATI -- The University of Massachusetts's defensive game plan worked. The Minutemen just had a hard time scoring yesterday.
Jeff Viggiano tries to swat it away from Romain Sato.
The Musketeers have only lost five games in four years in the arena. No. 6 wasn't likely to come against a team that started 2-of-16 shooting and fell behind by 13 points in the first nine minutes.
Part of the reason was Xavier's defense. Part was UMass missed easy shots, long-range shots, hurried shots, and turned the ball over 20 times. UMass (9-13, 3-7 Atlantic 10) shot a season-low 27.8 percent from the field and 15.4 percent from 3-point range (4 of 26). The 44 points were its fewest since a 63-38 loss to Saint Joseph's Jan. 5, 2002.
"We just couldn't make shots for anything," UMass coach Steve Lappas said. "Our offense let us down; our defense gave us an opportunity."
Despite the slow start, the Minutemen only trailed, 31-19, at halftime.
Xavier senior Romain Sato, a preseason All-America candidate who averages 15.7 points, was scoreless in the first half and finished with just 7 points. Senior guard Lionel Chalmers (15.1 ppg) scored 10 points. The two were a combined 5 of 20 from the field and 4 of 13 from 3-point range.
"Offensively, our timing wasn't there," Xavier coach Thad Matta said.
It didn't matter. The Musketeers (14-9, 5-5) led from start to finish and were ahead, 48-28, with 11:43 remaining. They have won four straight.
UMass has now lost four in a row to Xavier, including two 20-point drubbings.
The Minutemen have dropped consecutive games after a four-game winning streak. If there's cause for concern, it's the way they have started the past three games. They trailed Rider, 20-9, before rallying for a 74-61 victory, and they were behind, 8-0, against Dayton in a 66-59 loss.
Xavier made four 3-pointers and was ahead, 14-2, less than five minutes into the game.
"Did the first five minutes hurt us? Sure," Lappas said. "But like I tell the guys, `We're not worth much if we're going to lose the game in the first five minutes.' "
UMass's slow start could partially be attributed to the benching of senior Anthony Anderson and first-year sophomore Rashaun Freeman, who sat out the first four minutes after being late for a 7:30 a.m. team bus departure Friday.
Freeman forgot his identification in his room and went back to get it. He was two minutes late, Lappas said. Anderson was five minutes late.
"In some places they would've said, `Aw, the heck with it. It wasn't a big deal,' " Lappas said. "To me, it's a big thing. The kids know we want to stick to what we believe in terms of discipline."
As the team walked off the court yesterday, Anderson said to Lappas: "Coach, why was I late to the bus?"
"That's a good sign," Lappas said. "That's where our program is going. I know it sounds crazy, but I know we're going in the right direction."
"I'm an older guy," Anderson said. "It was a mistake. It happens. My alarm clock didn't go off. I was definitely mad at myself because they kind of ran away in the first four minutes. It didn't really affect my flow, but it affected the team's flow."
INCINNATI - There seemed to be little frustration for University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Steve Lappas after watching his team lose 64-44 to Xavier at the Cintas Center Saturday. Instead of being upset that his team shot a season-low 27.8 percent from the field and fell behind by double digits in the first five minutes while two starters watched from the bench, Lappas was generally pleased with his team's effort.
''Our guys did a terrific job with our defensive game plan this game,'' Lappas said. ''We just couldn't make a shot for anything.''
That inability to make a shot - including 15.4 percent on 3-point attempts - led to the second straight loss for UMass, which dropped the Minutemen to 9-13 and 3-7 in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The 44 points was UMass' lowest output since scoring 38 points in a loss to Saint Joseph's on Jan. 5, 2002.
''I know they ended up with 64, but it was like a 58-point game because of the last minute,'' Lappas said. ''If you told me we'd hold this team to 58, 60 points, I'd say we have a heck of a shot to win.''
But UMass was never in contention after the first five minutes, most of which starters Anthony Anderson and Rashaun Freeman sat and watched while their teammates struggled to score just two points. Xavier scored 14 points during the same span and led by at least nine the rest of the game.
''Did the first five minutes hurt us?'' Lappas said. ''Sure. But like I tell the guys, we're not worth much if we're going to lose the game in the first five minutes of the game.''
Anderson and Freeman did not play for the first four minutes because they were late for the team bus at 7:30 a.m. Friday in Amherst. Anderson, a senior, showed up five minutes late for the bus, and Freeman, a sophomore, was late by two minutes after forgetting his identification card in his room. Lappas said some programs might not view being late by a few minutes as a big deal, but he felt he had to penalize the players because he had ''to stick to what we believe in terms of discipline.''
Once Anderson and Freeman entered the game, neither shot particularly well while trying to close Xavier's margin. Anderson scored seven points on two of 11 shooting while Freeman shot three of 9 and finished with nine points. Artie Bowers led UMass with 10 points.
After trailing 31-19 at halftime, UMass got no closer to Xavier in the second half, making just two of 14 3-point attempts in the final 20 minutes.
Four Xavier (14-9, 5-5) players scored in double figures, led by freshman Justin Cage and senior Anthony Myles who each finished with 12 points. The Musketeers forced 20 UMass turnovers and scored 19 points off them.
The Minutemen finished with just seven assists.
An exchange with Anderson after the game, however, left Lappas with an encouraging feeling despite having lost for the eighth time on the road this season with two wins.
''The first thing (after the game) that Anthony told me was, 'Why was I late for the bus?,' '' Lappas said. ''That's a good sign. I didn't say a word, and all he said to me was 'Coach, why was I late for the bus?' I said 'Anthony, it's a positive that that's how you look at it.' That's where our program is going. And I know we are going in the right direction.''
That at least establishes a favorable outlook for UMass as it attempts to close out its remaining six regular-season games and possibly move into second place in the A-10 East.
Even though UMass is four games below .500 in the league, the Minutemen could still earn a free pass to the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals. The Minutemen are two games behind Temple (11-10, 5-5) for the second spot in the East, below unbeaten Saint Joseph's. The top two teams in each division earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament March 10-13 in Dayton.
UMass returns home to face Rhode island at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when Al Skinner's number will be retired at halftime.
Official Basketball Box Score Massachusetts vs Xavier 02/14/04 4:00 pm at Cincinnati, OH (Cintas Center) -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- VISITORS: Massachusetts 9-13, 3-7 TOT-FG 3-PT REBOUNDS ## Player Name FG-FGA FG-FGA FT-FTA OF DE TOT PF TP A TO BLK S MIN 05 Lasme, Stephane..... f 2-3 0-0 0-0 3 2 5 2 4 0 2 6 0 15 22 Viggiano, Jeff...... f 2-7 0-4 3-5 2 3 5 3 7 0 1 1 0 39 11 Maxwell, Maurice.... g 2-11 0-6 3-5 2 3 5 1 7 2 6 0 3 30 13 Chadwick, Chris..... g 0-2 0-2 0-0 0 1 1 0 0 1 2 0 0 17 34 Bowers, Art......... g 4-10 2-4 0-0 2 4 6 0 10 2 4 1 0 31 00 Martin, Brennan..... 0-1 0-1 0-0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 01 Freeman, Rashaun.... 3-9 0-0 3-5 3 6 9 3 9 0 4 1 1 26 12 Anderson, Anthony... 2-11 2-9 1-2 0 3 3 2 7 2 1 0 2 36 TEAM................ 1 3 4 Totals.............. 15-54 4-26 10-17 13 25 38 11 44 7 20 9 6 200
TOTAL FG% 1st Half: 5-28 17.9% 2nd Half: 10-26 38.5% Game: 27.8% DEADB 3-Pt. FG% 1st Half: 2-12 16.7% 2nd Half: 2-14 14.3% Game: 15.4% REBS F Throw % 1st Half: 7-11 63.6% 2nd Half: 3-6 50.0% Game: 58.8% 6
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- HOME TEAM: Xavier 14-9, 5-5 TOT-FG 3-PT REBOUNDS ## Player Name FG-FGA FG-FGA FT-FTA OF DE TOT PF TP A TO BLK S MIN 03 CAGE, Justin........ f 4-6 2-3 2-2 2 3 5 5 12 6 2 0 1 33 15 DOELLMAN, Justin.... f 4-6 3-4 0-2 1 1 2 2 11 3 3 2 3 29 24 MYLES, Anthony...... f 6-12 0-0 0-0 4 3 7 2 12 1 3 2 1 27 00 CHALMERS, Lionel.... g 3-8 3-6 1-2 0 2 2 2 10 3 1 0 2 31 10 SATO, Romain........ g 2-12 1-7 2-2 2 9 11 1 7 1 1 0 4 38 12 FINN, Dedrick....... 2-6 1-5 0-0 0 2 2 3 5 1 3 0 0 23 25 JACKSON, Keith...... 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 1 1 1 0 2 1 0 0 5 33 COLE, Brandon....... 1-3 0-0 0-2 2 1 3 0 2 0 3 0 0 7 52 CAUDLE, Will........ 2-6 0-0 1-2 1 1 2 0 5 0 0 0 0 7 TEAM................ 3 3 6 Totals.............. 24-60 10-25 6-12 15 26 41 16 64 17 17 4 11 200
TOTAL FG% 1st Half: 11-31 35.5% 2nd Half: 13-29 44.8% Game: 40.0% DEADB 3-Pt. FG% 1st Half: 5-14 35.7% 2nd Half: 5-11 45.5% Game: 40.0% REBS F Throw % 1st Half: 4-8 50.0% 2nd Half: 2-4 50.0% Game: 50.0% 2,1
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Officials: Eric Anderson, Joe DeMayo, Ken Clark Technical fouls: Massachusetts-None. Xavier-None. Attendance: 10250 Score by Periods 1st 2nd Total Massachusetts................. 19 25 - 44 Xavier........................ 31 33 - 64
Points in the paint-UMASS 20,XUM 22. Points off turnovers-UMASS 11,XUM 19. 2nd chance points-UMASS 7,XUM 8. Fast break points-UMASS 2,XUM 5. Bench points-UMASS 16,XUM 12. Score tied-0 times. Lead changed-0 times. Last FG-UMASS 2nd-00:39, XUM 2nd-00:30.