hen The UMass-Amherst basketball team walked off the court after a blowout victory over Temple on Saturday night, there wasn’t a happier person in Mullins Center than Matt Pennie.
Sure, first-year coach Travis Ford was pleased about his club’s dominating effort against its biggest rival. Sophomore Lawrence Carrier couldn’t have been happier after a career performance, burying five 3-pointers en route to a 17-point effort.
But the play that the season’s largest crowd of more than 8,000 was buzzing about as they filed out of the arena was the 3-point bomb that Pennie made with two seconds left in the game. It marked the first collegiate points for Pennie, a crowd favorite who served as team manager for two years before being promoted to the varsity this fall.
The 6-7 graduate of Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, where he averaged 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists as a senior, -is still elated, not just about making a 3-pointer but about playing a much greater role with the team.
‘‘It was crazy,’’ Pennie said of the tone in Mullins Center following his shot. ‘‘The bench went crazy. It was a great atmosphere. I had my family there to see the game, but I never thought in a million years that I’d get in, especially against a good Temple team. I was fortunate to get in at the end, and the shot worked out. I’m just happy to be part of the team. I never really expected this.’’
Pennie almost brought his game to Emerson College, and could have been a star most anywhere at the Division 3 level.
He opted for UMass, however, so he could attend the school’s sports management program, and settled in as the team manager so he could be around the game he loves. When UMass held walk-on tryouts over the summer, Ford needed another player for a scrimmage and asked Pennie to join in. Shortly afterwards, Ford extended an invite to Pennie to join the varsity as a non-scholarship walk-on.
‘‘They had seven guys at the tryout and wanted to play four-on-four, so they asked me to play,’’ Pennie said. ‘‘Later they asked me if I would consider walking on. It’s something I really never expected. I was planning on being the head manager for the year, but then the offer came out of the blue. It was a pleasant surprise.’’
Pennie understands his role. He dresses for all games but is primarily a practice squad player. Saturday night’s cameo was only his second appearance this season. The first was in November, when UMass romped over Savannah State. He is the first one at practice, and one of the hardest working players on the squad.
‘‘I knew at the beginning of the year that I wouldn’t see much time, but I work hard in practice to help get the team ready for the next game,’’ said Pennie, who played a lot perimeter at Whitman-Hanson, but mostly works the post during practice.
‘‘Matt is a great asset to our team, and we couldn’t ask for much more in a walk-on player,’’ Ford said. ‘‘Matt gives his all every single day and is always one of the first players in the gym working on every part of his game. It’s a thankless job being a walk-on and knowing you’re not going to play in games very often, but he does a great job and has done a great job making the transition from manager to player.’’
As for the 3-pointer, Ford said it was not a play designed specifically to go to Pennie. Rather, the play was supposed to eat up the remaining time on the clock in a blowout situation. ‘‘He had a wide open shot and took it,’’ Ford said. ‘‘When a walk-on gets the chance to take a shot like that, you can’t be upset with him.’’
Mass head basketball coach Travis Ford looked down his bench with 30 seconds left in the Minutemen’s 60-34 route of Atlantic 10 rival Temple last Saturday and signaled to his walk-ons that it was their turn to play.
Matt Pennie, former captain of the Whitman-Hanson basketball team and walk-on at UMass, came on the court for only the second time in his career and made the most of it.
With time ticking away, the Minutemen swung the ball around the perimeter until it rested in Pennie’s hands with two seconds remaining. He stopped, squared up, and nailed a three-pointer with time expiring, sending the 8,000-plus in attendance into frenzy.
The game was also nationally televised on ESPN.
“I couldn’t have written a better script, I had about 20 people up at the game to support me. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d get in,” Pennie said.
“Then to get the ball in the corner and hit that shot on ESPN, in front of everybody… I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
Two hours east, Whitman-Hanson coach Bob Rodgers was on a recruiting trip with senior captain Andrew MacDonald.
MacDonald’s cell phone started ringing, his friends called him to say, “Pennie hit a three!”
Rodgers watched the replay later on and thought back to the tall skinny kid who worked hard enough to become a player and had the personality to be a captain.
“It’s thrilling for me to see him in the uniform there on the sidelines. He is a top-notch kid, before being a great basketball player, he’s just one of those people,” Rodgers said. “I don’t know anybody who has ever met him that didn’t like him.”
Pennie, who is a junior at UMass, spent his freshman and sophomore years as a team manager. He would work with the team during practices, and take care of the behind the scenes business of a Division I basketball program.
At the beginning of this year, Ford thanked him for his hard work and dedication in the form of a jersey (#12) and a spot on the roster.
Aside from the Temple game, Pennie had one other chance to play, a 93-57 drubbing of Savannah State on Nov. 28. The scene couldn’t have been different though, against the Tigers of Savannah, there were 2,633 people at the Mullins Center, against the Owls… 8,127.
“Coach Ford told me to check in with about 30 seconds left and it was just unbelievable to be on the court, look around, and see a packed Mullins Center crowd,” Pennie said. “It was a great atmosphere the whole day, I was really into it.”
After the game, Pennie went back into the locker room and checked his cell phone; he spent the next few minutes listening to voicemails from friends and family who watched the whole game, praying for the near impossible.
“I had a ton of voicemails from all my friends. A lot of my family called too from across the country, family in Florida and back home,” Pennie said.
Ford, who is considered one of the most demanding coaches in the nation, told Pennie, “nice shot” after the game, but made sure he cam back to earth the next day in practice.
“We joked around a little bit and he got on me in practice because I missed a defensive assignment,” Pennie said. “He was like, ‘You think you hit threes now huh? Well you better pick up the defense as well.’”