MHERST — The wolves weren't just scratching at the door. They had figuratively sunk their teeth into the coach's legs, preparing for the kill.
Somehow, for one day at least, Bruiser Flint wiggled free. Just as it looked like the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team was about to collapse under the weight of its own sloppy, inconsistent play, the Minutemen ran Fordham out of the Mullins Center — an 82-52 win that gives hope to what had seemed, less than 48 hours previously, to be a hopeless situation.
Thursday's loss to St. Bonaventure had been dreadful, far worse than the 70-60 score suggested. It offered the strongest statement yet that UMass basketball under Flint just wasn't working out, and even his shrinking legion of defenders were running out of explanations.
Yesterday's game doesn't change that. To fans and alumni, Flint is still under the gun in a way Pete Carroll could understand. But the victory, and the way it was accomplished, has again tantalized those who wonder if the problems that obviously afflict this program can still be solved without a firing squad.
Yesterday, UMass athletic director Bob Marcum made it clear he won't jump the gun on Flint's future. Marcum has always been loyal to his coaches — Mike Hodges in football and Joe Mallen in hockey come to mind — to the point where it's clear he does not want to pull the plug on a struggling coach, at least before the contract is up.
"This is a program of high expectations," Marcum said. "And we always say there's a preseason, a season that includes 16 league games, and a postseason. There are plenty of opportunities.
"These are our players and our coaches, and I'm here to support them," Marcum said before yesterday's game. UMass then went out and performed in a way that must have tempted him to think he might still be able to avoid what he doesn't want to do, which is to remove a coach whose contract runs for two more years.
But the problems didn't vanish for good yesterday. They only left the house for one day. UMass is still trying to win with only one shooter (Monty Mack) and with a point guard, Shannon Crooks, who is trying mightily to play a position not completely natural to him.
There are other issues with this program, too. Yesterday's game drew 5,092 fans, missing by 14 from equaling the lowest total for a UMass men's basketball game in Mullins Center history.
It was a supportive crowd that offered several ovations. But few, if any, walked away thinking all was well with a program that is 22-27 since February 1998, even including yesterday's rout.
The trendy complaint lately is recruiting, and it's hard to refute. Flint's two junior-college finds have been seldom-used Anthony Oates and JoVann Johnson, who went home with Flint's approval during the holidays, but never came back and hasn't been heard from since.
The best of Flint's prep recruits may be Micah Brand, whose play was a highlight. But the roster is hardly filled with recent recruiting success stories.
Still, a win is a win, and Flint was asked if he thought yesterday's would provide the ignition for a UMass victory train.
"I hope it's a train, not a roller coaster," he said. "A roller coaster is tough on the stomach."
And on one's job security. In the ongoing issue of where this program is headed, yesterday was a desperately needed step in the right direction. No one needs to be reminded that it was only one step that will soon be forgotten, unless it's followed by several more.