his was, shall we say, a bit strange. This was something it took a moment or two to get used to.
After beating Fordham 81-72, UMass coach Bruiser Flint was practically floating on air. He leaned back in his chair, huge smile engulfing his handsome face from unlimited pride and happiness. "This has to be the biggest victory of my coaching career," he glowed. "I've never been quite so excited or so proud of the kids."
Back here on earth, this left us inkstained wretches a tad confused. Sure, UMass (14-11, 8-4 in the Atlantic 10 Conference) won. Sure, they won on the road. But was beating the barely rebuilding, barely mediocre Fordham "the biggest win"? For a team that, just a couple of years ago was considered – however erroneously – a major NCAA contender?
Have times changed, or what? And not for the better, either.
However, from another point of view, the basketball purist's, Flint's pure joy was purely understandable. UMass had not only won a big road game it had to have in order to achieve some kind of a post-season spot, but it won with its top scorer, star shooting guard Monty Mack, out of the lineup with a bad case of the flu.
And the truth is, the Minutemen have tremendous troubles scoring enough points with Mack (and his 20-plus points per game) in there. So to beat any team without him, and doing it by scoring 81 points, was indeed a major accomplishment.
Naturally, it did not come easy. Even with wildly up-and-down Fordham playing perhaps its worst game of the year, the Minutemen struggled getting points in the early going. Until there was three minutes to go in the first half, to be exact.
That's when soph guard Shannon Crooks, who stepped into Mack's role but was shut out of the scoring column over the first 17 minutes due to some way-out wildness, went nuts and scored 13 points in the course of 3 scant minutes from every imaginable position on the floor.
Crooks, staying on a stupendous sizzle for the rest of the game, ended up with a career high 29 markers. "Boy, he really stepped it up big time," Flint said. "But, then again, we always knew he could play like that."
"I did it for Monty," a very serious-looking Crooks intoned after the game. "We are roommates and best friends. I was thinking about him every minute out there."
Even more amazing was how the rest of the team – guys that, by and large, couldn't score 81 points in an empty gym, most of the time – "stepped up." Slumping center Kitwana Rhymer shot 7-9 from the floor. Point guard Jonathan DePina hit as couple of huge threes, and played an outstanding floor game. And Chris Kirkland did his usual – read, outstanding – "thing."
Every one of the Minutemen played simply outstanding defense as well. "Sometimes, that's what happens," Flint floated from joy. "Guys who know that they'll get extra shots in a particular game due to a star's absence get energized and end up playing even harder on the other end."
"I would have rather faced them with Mack," agreed Fordham coach Bob Hill. UMass' next opponent, St. Joseph's, did not get the "chance" to do that. Though Mack, perhaps not fully back in health, did not start the game.
He did, however, finish off St. Joe's with 23 big points in the very impressive 76-65 win. Mack also had 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and one steal.
The new, "Mack-off-the-bench" chemistry held up very well, with Crooks – obviously far more comfortable in the shooting guard spot – scoring 20, and Kirkland coming up with a double double of 12 points and 10 rebounds. The usually non-scoring small forward Mike Babul (9 points, 3 steals) and gifted rookie big man Micah Brand (8 points, 3-4 shooting, 4 rebounds) also had huge games.
"This team is not nearly as talented as last year's" Flint said. "But they play better together and play harder. That's all I can ask. And, yes, I think we can definitely reach the post-season. In fact, that's been our goal all year."