on't start writing this team's obituary just yet.
Admittedly, watching the Massachusetts men's basketball team drop six straight games heading into break was nothing short of excruciating. Whether an unthinkable 13-point drubbing by Holy Cross or a three-point heartbreaker at Ohio State, the team seemed cursed on practically every outing. The last of those defeats, an 82-67 whipping at the hands of archrival Connecticut, prompted legions of former UMass supporters to call for Head Coach James "Bruiser" Flint's head.
The executioner's axe may have been stayed, at least temporarily, by the team's rather inspired play since. UMass has gone a seemingly mediocre 5-4 since the UConn loss, but has beaten three of the top five teams in the Atlantic 10 in the process. Through 16 games, the Minutemen have earned a sub par 6-10 overall record but a solid 4-1 conference mark that has them within one-half game of the top spot the A-10.
The six-game skid ended with a convincing 68-52 win over cross-state rival Boston University, then trekked down to North Carolina and flashed some brilliant basketball in losses to UNC (91-60) and future A-10 foe Richmond (63-59).
It was then on to the conference portion of their schedule, and that's when the fun really began for the Maroon and White. Flint's troops got the A-10 ball rolling with a 76-60 massacre of George Washington at home, then invaded Cincinnati to shock Xavier 75-64 in its brand new, 43-million dollar Cintas Center. It was only Xavier's third loss of the year, and snapped a six-game win streak for the Musketeers.
It took a minor miracle from St. Bonaventure up in frigid Olean, NY to cool off red-hot UMass, as Bonnie Vidal Massiah hit a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to steal a 66-65 win for his team. Rather than hang their heads at the improbable loss, the Minutemen channeled their energies into an electrifying 62-57 win over Dayton (the program's 1,000th victory) back home in the William D. Mullins Center. A rather rousing encore came when Bru's crew wiped the floor of the Springfield Civic Center with the Dukes of Duquesne, 80-69.
"When you get tired of getting somebody's foot... you've got to turn it around sometime," Flint said. "If we don't turn over a new leaf, that leaf's going to be in dire shape by the end of the season."
The team has also begun showing signs of an identity crafted from its brutal early-season schedule, as many players off to sluggish starts seem to have hit their strides with perfect timing for a run at the conference crown.
Leading the way is senior tri-captain Monty Mack, the preseason pick for A-10 Player of the Year. After serving a season-opening suspension and struggling to find his rhythm, the All-American has caught fire from the field and upped his scoring output to 18.2 points per game, good for sixth in the conference. Mack dropped 20 or more points in five straight games beginning against UNC, including a season-high 28 in UMass' victory over the Colonials.
Another player who has revamped his game is senior center Kitwana Rhymer, who was plagued by foul trouble that limited his floor minutes through many of the early games this season. Rhymer has cleaned up his D and blossomed into the paint power so desperately needed by UMass, posting double-doubles against Boston College (14 pts, 11 reb), GW (11 pts, 16 reb) and Dayton (19 pts, 13 reb).
Other members of the Maroon and White have come through with clutch performances at the best possible times. Tri-captain Winston Smith, known more for his stranglehold defense and endless hustle, turned into a rebounding machine against Xavier (11 boards) and Richmond (a career-high 14 caroms). Junior swingman Ronell Blizzard emerged as a one-man rejection committee, blocking a career-high seven shots at BU and four more at Xavier.
The Dec. 14 win over the Terriers (7-8) saw the Minutemen take advantage of a marked size advantage over BU. With 6-foot-8 Ryan Butt the only semblance of a center in the Terrier middle, Rhymer put up a team-high 10 points and Blizzard added career-highs of nine points and 14 boards.
The game started slowly for both teams, as neither team reached the double-digit mark until a jumper by UMass guard Shannon Crooks at the 9:17 mark staked the Maroon and White to a 10-8 lead. That edge would balloon to 30-19 at the half, despite the struggling backcourt shooting of UMass (Mack, Crooks and Jonathan DePina shot a combined 6-of-25 from the field). The Terriers simply had no answer for the Minutemen's size, as 6-foot-8 Eric Williams helped put the game away with 7-of-10 shooting from the charity stripe.
The then-undefeated Eagles of BC swooped into the Mullins Center three days later for the sixth-annual Commonwealth Classic. BC was trying to shake a five-year goose egg in the event, as UMass had claimed every one of the previous Classic showdowns with its cross-state foe. But the Eagles (12-2) used a late 11-0 run to finish off the Minutemen, who had pulled within one (56-55) with 3:35 remaining.
The decisive run was due in large part to BC's Xavier Singletary, who canned a pair of late threes on his way to a game-high 22 points. The Eagles had ridden off-guard Troy Bell (19 pts) for much of the game, until Flint switched up his defensive scheme and assigned Smith to guard the wiry sophomore. Bell managed only four second-half points after firing for 15 before the break.
UMass' comeback run was fueled by standout play on both ends of the court from Crooks (10 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field and three steals) and Rhymer (a game-high four blocks). Crooks knocked down back-to-back baskets at the tail end of the Maroon and White's 8-0 spurt, electrifying the nearly 5,000 fans on hand.
The squad faced a tall order when it ventured down to the Charlotte Coliseum for the Hardee's Tournament of Champions on New Year's Eve weekend; the other three teams in the tourney (UNC, Richmond and the College of Charleston) boasted a combined record of 22-4 coming in. The Minutemen also had the misfortune of facing the Tar Heels in the opening game, in front of over 13,000 fans who had "The Hive" truly buzzing.
But instead of succumbing to the electric atmosphere and the intimidating Tar Heel tradition, UMass came out swinging and set 7-2 UNC back on its heels from the time that Rhymer controlled the opening tip. Mack looked hot early, burying a rainbow three and a short jumper on back-to-back possessions. Smith added a 13-footer to cap a 7-0 run that left the Minutemen up by six a mere 4:21 in.
The lead would change hands eight times over the next 14:33, until UNC's Will Johnson helped key an 8-0 half-ending run for the 'Heels. The sophomore forward started the spurt by converting a pair of free throws and finished it off my picking Mack's pocket and feeding teammate Joseph Forte for a breakaway layup.
Even though his team led 40-33 at the half, first-year UNC coach Matt Doherty was anything but pleased at the break. "I'm going to have to pay for a chair," was the only indication Doherty gave as to the tirade he gave his team in the locker room.
The furniture abuse apparently worked, as the 'Heels used a decisive 19-6 run at the 11:42 mark of the second half to build a commanding 17-point cushion. UNC forced three turnovers in the span of a single minute and converted them into six straight points en route to a 60-43 lead. The punch-drunk Minutemen seemed to fall apart at that point, leaving Doherty's troops an opportunity to run up the lopsided final score.
The consolation round pitted UMass against 7-2 Richmond. The Spiders launched a staggering 20 three-point attempts in the first half alone, building a 30-25 lead at the break. They managed only six total field goals the rest of the game, but benefited from 23 second-half free throw attempts (19 of which dropped) on their way to a four-point win.
Mack got the Minutemen within striking distance at 60-57 by drilling a three with 23 ticks remaining, but UR's Greg Stevenson then converted a pair of foul shots to seal up the win. Mack finished with a game-high 20 points, while Stevenson (19 pts) reached double figures for his 40th straight time in a Spider uniform.
"Tonight we didn't play badly, we just lost the game," Flint said afterward. "It seems like every game is like tonight."
The New Year brought with it a Jan. 6 home battle with GW as the opening action of UMass' conference schedule. The Colonials (7-9) got off to a phenomenal start behind junior forward Attila Cosby, who knocked down five of his first eight shots to stake his team to a 29-16 edge with 5:31 to go in the first half.
The 6-foot-9 junior led all scorers with 12 points at the break, a big reason for the Colonials' 37-25 halftime edge. The much anticipated showdown between Mack and A-10 Rookie of the Year SirValiant Brown saw both players already in double figures at the break, with 11 and 10 points respectively.
It was Mack who had the hot hand in the early goings of the second half, converting two of his first three shots, including a long trifecta, to trim the GW lead down to seven. Rhymer and Williams then found their strokes, hitting a pair of pails apiece over the next 4:32 to push UMass out in front, 48-42. Brown struggled mightily over the same span, missing five of his first six second-half shots and showing obvious frustration with the officiating.
"I don't think [Brown] gets enough respect from the officials," said GW coach Tom Penders. "For a player of his caliber, he was getting hand checked and bumped a lot."
Crooks added a dozen second-half points to finish with 13 and propel UMass to its biggest offensive half (51 pts) and game (76) of the season. DePina chipped in with a game-high six assists and no turnovers in 28 minutes at the point. The Minutemen as a team didn't commit a single second-half turnover and finished with a season-low eight giveaways.
UMass' Jan. 9 date with Xavier again meant venturing into a hostile foreign arena; the Musketeers entered the game with a perfect 7-0 mark in their new facility. The Cintas Center crowd got a slap in the face, however, when the Minutemen jumped out to a 25-12 lead. Xavier coach Skip Prosser struggled to find a defense that could stop UMass, switching from man-to-man to zone and instituting a full-court press with very little success.
The Musketeers also struggled to put the ball through the hoop, shooting a dreadful 23 percent from the field in the first half. XU's saving grace was the free throw line, where the team garnered 13 of its 24 points en route to a six-point halftime deficit.
But try as they might to gain ground in the second half, the Musketeers were buried under the deft shooting of Mack (8-of-19, 4-of-10 from three) and the foul shot mastery of his backcourt mates (Crooks and DePina a combined 10-of-12 from the line). The loss spoiled a breathtaking performance from Xavier's sophomore center David West, who poured in a career-high 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
St. Bonaventure (9-5) had won three-straight over UMass at its own Reilly Center, giving Mack and company added incentive to steal a win from the Bonnies on Jan. 13.
The first half was a see saw of action, with SBU seemingly gaining control as halftime approached. But a five-point outburst from Rhymer helped UMass tally seven of the half's last eight points, sending the game into the break deadlocked at 35-all.
The Maroon and White rode a 7-0 spurt out of the blocks in the second half that led to an 11-3 run and a 46-38 UMass edge. But the Bonnies simply wouldn't go away, swinging the lead back 55-53 on Massiah's first three with 5:22 remaining.
The two teams would wrestle with the advantage the whole rest of the way, as the Minutemen handed SBU the lead on successive turnovers before snatching it back on two Rhymer freebies that capped a 7-1 run. Crooks stepped to the line with 20 ticks remaining and a 64-63 lead, but his second shot wouldn't stay down and the Bonnies were left with a window through which to steal the win. Flint chose to focus his defensive scheme on SBU's Kevin Houston (20 pts) on the play, leaving junior Massiah open for the decisive dagger.
"Coach said they might double team Kevin and told me if I got it, shoot it," Massiah said. "It felt good. When it left my hand, I knew it was in."
Such magic from the outside wasn't needed against Dayton (10-7), as the Minutemen scored their first 21 points of the game from within eight feet of the rim and hit 51 percent from the field overall, their best shooting percentage since the season-opening win over Iona. UMass pounded the ball inside relentlessly against the undersized Flyer front line, allowing Rhymer to combine with Micah Brand and Jackie Rogers for 49 of UMass' 62 points on 20-of-27 shooting from the floor.
"We didn't have any lapses in our minds," Rhymer said. "We came out 'stuffing the box' as we call it, and we found a way to win."
As proficient as the Maroon and White was from the paint in the early goings, Dayton was doubly deadly from beyond the three-point line. Flyer guard Tony Stanley connected on his first three attempts from international waters, and the team's 6-of-7 effort from downtown was the single biggest reason Dayton walked off the court at halftime with a 32-26 lead.
"We let them shoot like that," Flint said. "If their guards get in a comfort zone, they'll kill you. But we made them earn their shots in the second half."
The home team's second-half run to victory also included a bit of comedy: with roughly seven minutes to play and the score tied at 48-all, Williams stood at the top of the key and fired a perfect pass into the chest of Flint in front of the UMass bench.
"You know that in my day, I would have shot it," Flint said.
The coach probably wished he could have been in uniform for the team's clash with Duquesne (7-11). The Dukes were forced to take the floor without Wayne Smith (18.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) one of the conference's most athletic forwards and the team's hands-down biggest weapon. Smith suffered a bruised heel in DU's prior game against LaSalle and was a game-time no go for Coach Darelle Porter.
Even without Smith, the Dukes played some inspired basketball over the first half to hang within striking distance of the Minutemen. A raucous crowd of almost 7,000 fans got into the action early when UMass' inside game began to take control (Rhymer and Brand teamed for eight points, eight rebounds and five blocks over the first 20 minutes) but Duke Jack May (six points, six boards in the first half) helped his team close to within six, 34-28, at the break.
"I told them in the locker room, you've got to put a foot on 'em," Flint said. "Once you put a foot on 'em, you've got to step on their neck."
Mack did most of the second half stepping, connecting on 4-of-6 from the field in the second set (including 2-of-4 from downtown) to finish with a game-high 25 points. Rhymer notched his second double-double in as many outings (15 pts, 12 reb) and the team racked up season highs in points (80), steals (11), blocks (13) and field goal percentage (55.2 percent).
"They're one of the hottest teams in the league right now," Porter said. "If they continue playing like they have lately, they can beat anyone."
The biggest test of the year still loomed ahead: a Jan. 27 battle with archrival Temple at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia. But having already bested the rest of the A-10's toughest, Brand and the Minutemen view their showdown with the Owls not as a roadblock, but just another turnstile on the way to the division crown.
"We know that if we come to play the way we've been playing, they're just another team that we can beat," Brand said.