Making a powerful impact
Minutemen have discovered a sparkplug in Kirkland
By Joe Burris, The Boston Globe Staff, 1/22/1999

PHILADELPHIA - In basketball-speak at the University of Massachusetts, they're called warriors. Enforcer types. Players whose grit and tenacity and fearlessness typify the will of the team and put the opposition on alert.

Center Harper Williams, UMass's first Atlantic-10 Player of the Year, was a warrior. Ditto power forward Lou Roe, the school's first consensus All-American, and power forwards Dana Dingle and Tyrone Weeks. Each, in his day, was a player who could control a game by doing more than scoring.

This season's team struggled early in part because it lacked a consistent warrior type. Now they've found one in 6-foot-6-inch junior forward Chris Kirkland, who in the last four games is averaging 11 points, 8.8 boards, 1.3 blocks, and 1.5 steals. He is one of the primary reasons why the Minutemen (8-8, 4-1) enter tomorrow's contest against A-10 rival Temple having won a season-high three straight.

The difference in Kirkland's case is that the other ''warriors'' seemed to be groomed for the role upon arrival. Kirkland, who backed up starter Mike Babul at shooting guard until he became a starter eight games ago, didn't want that responsibility on his shoulders.

''Now that I have to do that, I don't mind,'' he said. ''I found out that that's my job, and if that's what I have to do for the team to win, that's what I have to do.

''I just wanted to play defense, but in the situation that we have is that Mike Babul is playing great defense, and I had an opportunity to play at the power forward spot. You can't turn that down. I'm starting at the power forward spot. I'm just happy to be playing right now.''

Last season, Kirkland was a reliable seventh man, spelling Babul with assertive defense. But other parts of his game lagged; he reached double figures in scoring only twice - primarily because he struggled hitting the 15-foot jumper - and he had double-figure rebounds only once.

But this season he has led the team in intangibles like diving for loose balls, cutting off passing lanes, and being an inside presence - as Weeks did. And his offense has come around; when defenses double-team center Lari Ketner, it leaves Kirkland open, and he has become reliable with the 15-foot wing jump shot, as Dingle once was.

''I used to just go out there and play defense and rebound and I really wasn't worried too much about scoring,'' said Kirkland. ''I was just happy to be out there. I thought, `We have Monty [Mack] and Lari for scoring.' But then they started triple-teaming Lari, and we weren't getting that scoring from him. So now when I get my opportunities I have to convert.''

Kirkland was one of the catalysts in the Minutemen's 64-60 upset over then-No. 15 Kansas last Saturday. He had 10 points, 8 boards, and 3 steals, including a takeaway from point guard Jeff Boschee with 30 seconds left.

In Wednesday's victory over St. Joseph's, Kirkland had a 9-point, 9-rebound effort. His baseline drive and ferocious two-handed dunk with 1:53 left helped silence a St. Joseph's rally.

''When you double-team Lari, he makes you pay for it,'' said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. ''He's been probably our most productive guy the last five games, because he's just out there playing.

''He's playing confident. I mean, that dunk, Chris Kirkland might not have even shot that about two or three weeks ago. But he took it to the basket and dunked; he's been playing so much better.''

This from a player who didn't even know whether he was good enough to play at the Division 1 level until major colleges began calling toward the end of his high school career.

Kirkland lived in Pittsburgh for three years before college but was born and raised in Timmonsville, S.C., (pop. 6,639). Coming from a small town, he had his doubts about his talents, despite the fact that his brother James helped lead California (Pa.) to the Elite Eight of the 1992 Division 2 tournament, and his cousin Levon is an All-Pro linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

''When I played high school ball in Pittsburgh, people kept telling me I could play at the next level,'' said Kirkland, who moved to Pittsburgh to live with James his sophomore year and averaged 25.9 points and 11 rebounds as a senior.

Kirkland probably will never approach those numbers at the collegiate level, but he knows warriors need not be big scorers to help their team win.

''The power forward just has to be more physical,'' he said. ''You have to get in there, get dirty, rebound, and take punishment. You have to be the enforcer of the team.''


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