MHERST - With just over two minutes left and the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team trailing the Converse All-Stars 86-85 last week, Jonathan DePina pulled up just behind the three-point arc and released.
Jonathan DePina has shown improvement in exhibition play, but will it carry over to the regular season?
But the shot dropped without touching the rim and the UMass crowd exploded. After UMass had trailed for most of the game, DePina's shot put the Minutemen ahead to stay, 88-86. For good measure, DePina made both of his free throws with 23 seconds left to seal the victory.
On the bench, his longtime friend and teammate Monty Mack, who was in a shirt and tie while recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, pumped his fist and cheered excitedly.
Clutch three-pointers and free throws were not part of a typical Jonathan DePina outing a year ago. Fans got too accustomed to seeing a nervous-looking DePina struggling to find someone to pass to as the shot clock ran down. Turnovers were all too familiar - he finished with 38 compared with just 36 assists, while scoring only 1.8 points per game.
Coaches, fans and DePina himself wondered if maybe a change of scenery might be in his best interest. But after UMass gave DePina the freedom to explore his options, he decided to stay and try to prove he could play at this level.
"After the season I told myself I was going to work harder than I ever did," said DePina, who stands 5-feet-9. "In pickup games and in the (Springfield) pro-am league, I told myself to shoot. Not wild shots, but if I'm open, shoot it, and it just got my confidence up. So I've been shooting it."
In the preseason, those shots have been falling. His 17 points against Converse followed a 13-point effort against the California All-Stars a week before.
But DePina's improvements have come in other areas as well. The raccoon-in-the-headlights look was gone in the two exhibition games. In UMass' new up-tempo system, DePina has looked far more relaxed. Mack, who has played with DePina since they were 12 and 11 years old, respectively, has noticed the difference.
"I think he's a lot more comfortable going up and down the court because that's the style he's used to playing. He looks like he has a lot more confidence in his jump shot and his all-around game," said Mack, who combined with DePina to lead South Boston to back-to-back state titles in 1995 and 1996. "Everybody is happy to see him happy."
DePina smiled when he talked about the change.
"I'm feeling a lot better. Hard work is starting to pay off a little bit," DePina said. "The style helps my game, going up and down. I'm a little guy, so I try to speed it up and pressure the other team. I come and work hard. It's fun. I don't mind working hard."
According to Flint, he even improved from one exhibition game to the next.
"Last game I thought he overpenetrated at times and got in too deep. Little guys can't overpenetrate because they can't get out of the crowd and today he did a great job of not overpenetrating," Flint said. "He's been pretty good. He's been as big a surprise as some of these other guys. Tonight I give him a lot more credit because he played better defensively without using his hands and getting tic-tac fouls."
The early success has made DePina glad he didn't transfer.
"I'm glad I stayed because now stuff is starting to fall my way," DePina said. "Everybody goes through some adversity at some points, you just have to fight through and keep working at it and you'll get through it."
He immortalized that lesson through a tattoo on his right arm - two Japanese characters that mean "hard earned." The slogan is a motto of sorts shared by DePina, Mack and Shannon Crooks, who all played on the same AAU team together. They coined the term to commemorate the significance of their difficult roads to basketball success.
The question for DePina remains: Can he turn exhibition numbers into production when the games count, and will that confidence carry over?
UMass will find out when it opens its season Saturday night at Iona.