INCINNATI — Basketball isn't yet fun again for University of Massachusetts forward Eric Williams, but at least it's getting closer.
"No, it's still not fun, it's stressful," said Williams, who gave 12 key minutes off the bench in Tuesday's 75-64 upset win at Xavier. "I hurt a bone in my (left) ankle in preseason, and I'm still not at full strength.
"But it's getting better, and I've learned I have to contribute here," Williams said. "That means to grab a rebound, score or even just cheer for my teammates."
A two-game winning streak may not sound earthshaking, but it's jarred the Minutemen's confidence in a positive direction. As they head to St. Bonaventure for Saturday's Atlantic 10 Conference game, they are 4-9 overall but 2-0 in the A-10, and convinced their fortunes have finally turned.
"I've always felt this team could win," said junior forward Ronell Blizzard, another major contributor off the bench Tuesday. "When you stop feeling that way, the season is over, and nobody thinks this season is over.
"When we were losing, we weren't paying attention to detail," he said. "But winning is like a domino effect. When guys are playing well, they start communicating better, and they play better through adverse situations."
One of the best examples came in Tuesday's second half, when Williams handed the ball to Blizzard on an in-bounds play. But Blizzard had been walking toward the end line, expecting to throw the ball in himself — and he walked out of bounds with the ball for a foolish-looking turnover.
But rather than falter, Blizzard responded with several key plays in the next few minutes, and UMass withstood a late comeback by Xavier.
For Williams, Tuesday's effort (five points, five rebounds, strong defense) is a welcome sign. The 6-foot-8 junior played two years at Syracuse, fell out of favor in coach Jim Boeheim's system, and transferred to UMass.
He sat out last season, scored 14 points with nine rebounds in this year's opener against Iona, but has struggled since then.
"I want to play," said Williams, who is resigned to playing with a sore ankle. "But to play here, I have to contribute on the court."
Tuesday, all nine players used did just that. Forward Winston Smith's 11 rebounds were his second-best career total. Point guard Shannon Crooks had 12 points and no turnovers in 26 minutes, and his backup, Jonathan DePina, had only two turnovers in 23.
Senior guard Monty Mack, who scored 26 points, thinks the brutal schedule — America's fourth toughest as of Tuesday — has made this team better.
"We played a lot of tough teams, and only two (Connecticut and North Carolina) beat us by a lot," Mack said. "I think the schedule helped us in the long run."
UMass coach Bruiser Flint says he never succumbed to the belief that the season had reached the point of no return, even after the Minutemen's worst start in 20 years.
"If I start to wonder whether we can turn it around, what do you think the players will think?" Flint said. "Everybody gave us good minutes, and when we substituted, we didn't lose much because our subs kinds of held them off."
"We beat a very good Xavier team, and we finally put two good halves together," Flint said. "That's what we've been talking about all year."