he UMass Minutemen (6-6) have suffered all kinds of painful losses over their last season of change and struggles. But, in basketball, there is pain, and then there is PAIN. And the team's road loss against highly favored Providence last week was of the most curiously painful, not to mention painfully curious, kind.
"We had this game won," Coach Bruiser Flint said. "I mean, it was all over. And then we lost it in the last few seconds on a loose ball scramble."
Several factors made things even more painful, if possible, for Flint and his troops:
1. UMass was coming off of a disastrous road trip to Puerto Rico, and badly needed a big win at this particular time.
2. Providence has just beaten highly regarded Arkansas, and was supposed to crush UMass in a cakewalk. Instead, the Minutemen gave them a run for their money.
3. They don't count moral victories like this one at NCAA Tournament time.
4. Funky losses like this can often build upon each other, snowball, and foreshadow funky losing seasons. They can create a "no matter what we do we can't win" aura around a team.
The Minutemen may have lacked intensity in Puerto Rico at times, but they played their hearts out for this game. And they still lost.
"The kids played so very hard," Flint said. "There were eight situations during the game when we saved a ball going out of bounds with a dive. And we got to every loose ball, every available rebound, as well." Indeed, UMass won the Battle of the Boards by a crushing 49-32 margin, against a bigger team.
But then how could they lose the game? "We lose when we don't shoot well," Flint said. "And we didn't. Worse, every time we shoot poorly from the floor, we seem to shoot poorly from the free-throw line. It's like a double whammy type of a thing."
UMass indeed whammed itself in the foot bigtime by bricking 44 of 66 shots (25 percent) from the floor. And they were an equally awful 56 percent (13-23) from the charity stripe, an inexcusable exacta.
The fact is, you are not going to win many games that way. But, to show how much UMass hustled, they still could have won this one if it weren't for that freak shot in the end.
Still, the team played much better that night than it has of late, fuelled perhaps by the two lineup changes Flint instituted before the Providence game. "This is it, I hope – I'm not thinking of any more changes," said the coach. "This lineup seems to play together real well on both ends of the floor."
Still, the changes only illustrate UMass' plight even further. Shannon Crooks replaced Jonathan DePina at the point, because Crooks (17 points) can score, while the more fundamentally sound DePina, in spite of some early bursts this season, basically can't. On the other hand, Mike Babul was back in the lineup at small forward for Ronnell Blizzard. Blizzard, a great shooter, turned timid and simply would not shoot the ball as a starter throughout four games. While Babul, who can't shoot one bit, is a far superior defensive player.
So UMass gains on one end, loses on the other. But that's what happens to struggling teams.
"We just need some games where four guys play well for us at the same time," Flint said. "And, frankly, we haven't had a game like that all season."