AMHERST - In this most unpredictable of University of Massachusetts men's basketball seasons, all one can expect is to be caught unsuspecting.
Confusing? Think about how coach Bruiser Flint and his staff must feel. Flint, in referring to what to expect each game, went so far as to paraphrase legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno when once he was asked, "'Do you know if your team is ready to play,' and Paterno said, 'No.'"
UMass (12-14, 8-6 Atlantic 10) played perhaps its best game of the season Saturday at Mullins Center, knocking off Xavier 78-77 in double overtime. Wednesday, UMass lost 78-72 to George Washington after trailing 24-5 to start the game, but playing very well after that.
Saturday, the Minutemen led the Musketeers for more than 35 minutes, by as many as 10 points, but couldn't put them away. Xavier (19-8) went ahead for the first time with 4:21 to play, but UMass had an answer.
For the last four minutes of regulation and the 10 minutes of overtime play, the Minutemen had an answer for everything Xavier did, whether by a jump shot, a free throw or an offense rebound and putback, such as the one by Lari Ketner that proved to be the winning basket.
"The guys did a great job of not putting their heads down," Flint said. "If we had done that in the Davidson game, we would have won."
Not to mention a few other games in which the Minutemen had their chances to pull out a win.
UMass' performance in the last two games could not have been much different in terms of outcome and personnel used, but the main ingredient was effort. As Minutemen lost the GW game, Ketner and Charlton Clarke were benched, while Rafael Cruz, Winston Smith and Kitwana Rhymer turned in strong performances off the bench.
Saturday, Ketner came to play, and Monty Mack and Chris Kirkland turned in superior efforts for the second game in a row. The three combined for 66 of the team's 78 points.
Kirkland, who had back-to-back double-doubles with 26 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday and 25 points and 13 rebounds Saturday was named one of the Atlantic 10 players of the week with Xavier's James Posey.
With two regular-season games left and then the A-10 tournament, Flint will have to get more minutes from his bench. Saturday, the starting five played 232 of a possible 250 minutes, and it showed.
Mack, who played all 50 minutes, shot 9 for 24 and left several shots short in the second half, a sure sign of fatigue. Also, UMass played an excellent defensive first half but in the second half gave up 15 of Xavier's 22 offensive rebounds.
"We've got no choice," Flint said. "We've got to suck it up, be men."
La Salle is next up for UMass tomorrow night in Philadelphia. The Explorers are coming off a bad loss, 86-78 to Duquesne, the Dukes' first league win and first win, period, in 18 contests.
But La Salle has only one league loss at home and should not be taken lightly. Although after the topsy turvey season the Minutemen have had, it's doubtful they'll take anyone lightly again.