Coverage from:
The Mass. Daily Collegian - Pre-game report
USA Today - Pre-game report
The Boston Herald
The Boston Globe
The Boston Globe - column
The Boston Globe - column
The Boston Globe - notebook
The Daily Hampshire Gazette - 10th year anniversary
Box score

North Carolina match-up now a reality
By Arthur Stapleton Jr., The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, 11/22/1993

After 36 minutes had gone by the boards in No. 22 Massachusetts' eventual 82-55 victory over Towson State last Saturday night in the William D. Mullins Center, the partisan maroon and white crowd began to chant, "UNC, UNC, UNC."

The fans' fore-gone conclusion became reality: UMass would play the No. 1 team in the country.

But when the cheers started, Minuteman guard Mike Williams stood up from the bench amidst the commotion of the on-going game, turned to the stands and urged the crowd to stop.

UMass won the unenviable task of facing defending NCAA champion North Carolina this Wednesday night in the Final Four of the Pre-Season NIT. Williams may have had a reason to be apprehensive.

Massachusetts Coach John Calipari didn't have a choice to decline the invitation to face the Tar Heels, but he said he'd rather play them than go home.

"Hey, the alternative [to facing North Carolina] was to lose to Towson State and not play them, so I like what happened," said Calipari. "If we're at all tentative, it'll be a struggle. We have to play with reckless abandon."

Because Carolina played on Friday night, pounding No. 19 Cincinnati by 27 points, the Minutemen players and coaches had a chance to watch their possible opponent before taking the court Saturday against Towson State. They saw what they would face if they won.

The Minutemen were anything but tentative against the Towson State Tigers, running and trapping all over the court and forcing 19 turnovers. Massachusetts scored 22 points off of Tiger mistakes.

Sophomore Donta Bright was a big factor in the full-court press; Bright was in the face of every Tiger ball handler and created numerous steals with his quick hands. He came away with two steals himself, to go along with nine points and four rebounds.

With Bright on the point of the press, freshman Marcus Camby anchored the back, stopping almost every Towson State drive at the basket. Camby had a tremendous game on both ends of the court, scoring 16 points, snagging 13 rebounds (five offensive), blocking four shots officially and gathering three steals.

"Coaches told me going in to just make easy plays and let the game come to me. I stepped up my game a little," said Camby.

The UMass defense held the Tigers to 39 percent shooting: Towson State did not break the 50-point mark until Camby emptied his bench with under one minute to go.

But the star of the game was Massachusetts forward Lou Roe, who put on an offensive show. Roe poured in a game-high 24 points and displayed not only an inside but an outside game, pulling up for 15-foot jumpers on more than one occasion.

Roe and Camby both said they are anxious to face Carolina, and will step it up another notch.

"Rasheed [Wallace] calls me and tells me they [UNC] can't wait for this match-up, and now we got it," said Camby, who spoke of his friendship with Carolina's freshman Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, teammates of his on the United States Olympic Festival this past summer.

"It's a big step up, but the thing right now is to realize that these are players just like we are," said Roe. "I think we're a great bunch, too."

UMass gets ready for N. Carolina
By G.E. Branch III, USA Today, 11/24/1993

Defending NCAA men's basketball champion North Carolina, quite familiar with the Final Four atmosphere, gets another early-season test Wednesday in the semifinals of the Preseason National Invitational Tournament at New York.

The top-ranked Tar Heels face No. 21 Massachusetts (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), and No. 9 Kansas takes on No. 11 Minnesota (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). North Carolina has the edge in experience and depth. (USA Today also had North Carolina as 14½ point favorites over the Minutemen.)

"I watched a lot of tape of them, a lot of tape," Massachusetts coach John Calipari jokes. "I have found two glaring weaknesses on the team; the fourth-string center has poor offensive skills, and the fourth-string point guard turns it over way too much."

Massachusetts suffered a setback when starting guard Mike Williams hurt an ankle in practice Monday. He has been using crutches.

"He may play, but it's doubtful," Calipari said.

The tournament final is Friday night.

UMass shocks Heels
By Wayne Woodlief, The Boston Herald, 11/25/1993

NEW YORK - Never get in Lou Roe's face.

Photo - Click for larger image
Edgar Padilla hugs Mike Williams as Lou Roe jumps on the scorer's table in jubilation.
Top-ranked North Carolina learned that bitter lesson last night, as Roe, with 28 points and 14 rebounds, led UMass to a dramatic, come-from-behind 91-86 overtime win over the Tar Heels in the Preseason NIT semi-final matchup. The win vaulted the Minutemen into tomorrow's title game against Kansas (ESPN, 9 p.m.).

Rasheed Wallace, one of UNC's hot new freshmen, got up in Roe's face after dunking over Roe following a steal as Carolina raced to an early 11-0 lead. Roe got mad, and Roe got even, leading his team to a comeback performance that marked the young season's first big upset.

The Minutemen, under coach John Calipari, sent a shot heard 'round the hoop world: They proved they can play with the beat and that UNC, the defending NCAA champion, can be taken.

"On the way into the building people were telling us to forget it, we couldn't beat North Carolina. They were laughing at us," Roe said. "I was getting angry."

Eric Montross and Kevin Salvadori, 7-footers who were two of Roe's tormentors, were on the bench in OT, fouling out late in the second half. But that shouldn't diminish UMass' huge win, with the fiery Calipari egging his team on after big plays.

Among the biggest were Roe's slick handoff under the basket to forward Dana Dingle, past two double-teaming Tar Heels, to give UMass an 80-76 lead after a minute and a half of overtime; Dingle's jumper that make it 82-76 and Mike Williams' crowd-erupting 3-point jumper with six seconds left that gave UMass a clinching 88-84 lead.

John Calipari registered his biggest win at UMass thusfar.
"It has been this team's attitude of refuse to lose," Calipari said. "A lot of teams would have given up, but our guys stepped up."

The cloud over this win was the injury that freshman center Marcus Camby suffered in the first few seconds of OT. He went down in agonizing pain in what UMass assistant AD Bill Strickland described later as contusions of the right knee. The injury will sideline Camby tomorrow night.

Camby had been fearless in challenging Carolina's trees, fighting Montross for rebounds, driving on Salvadori and bouncing off freshmen subs Jerry Stackhouse and Wallace.

Donald Williams, the hero in last year's UNC Final Four sweep, led the Tar Heels again last night with 22 points. Montross scored 13, on two classy left-handed hooks and tip-backs. But Roe dominated the night.

UMass students at courtside, like Northern versions of Duke's Cameron Crazies, jeered derisively at UNC during pre-game warmups, chanting, "They're all cousins, they're all cousins."

Kansas beat Minnesota, 75-70, in the opening semifinal, dashing the Gophers' chances to add a Preseason NIT championship to the postseason crown they won last season.

UMass makes another 1 bite dust
Minutemen hustle past North Carolina
By Joe Burris, The Boston Globe Staff, 11/25/1993

NEW YORK - Boston College told you on Saturday with a heartstopping upset of Notre Dame. Last night the University of Massachusetts said it with a 91-86 overtime upset of No. 1 North Carolina in the National Invitational Tournament semifinals.

Hey, you never know.

The Minutemen proved that on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. The Minutemen looked dead in the first four minutes but kept battling back to send the game to an extra frame. Destiny took over from there.

In overtime, Dana Dingle scored the first 6 points to put the Minutemen up 82-76, with 2:43 remaining. All this without big man Marcus Camby, who went down with a knee injury with 4:44 to go and didn't return. North Carolina cut it to 85-84 on two free throws by Jerry Stackhouse with 45.2 seconds left. But Mike Williams, who hit a 3-point basket to send the game into overtime, drained a 3-pointer with 13.2 left to put the Minute up, 88-84.

Lou Roe added a free throw with 5.8 seconds left to put UMass ahead, 89-84. The Minutemen will meet Kansas, a 75-71 victor over Minnesota in the other semifinal, in tomorrow night's final.

"We talked about BC beating Notre Dame before the game and we said that if that can happen anything can happen," said UMass' Donta Bright. "If we just go out and play hard we have a 50-50 chance."

Photo - Click for larger image
Mike Williams fought through an ankle injury to help UMass conquer mighty UNC.
UMass trailed 73-66 with 4:53 in regulation before the Minutemen, who had staged comebacks all evening, rallied with a 7-1 spurt to pull within 74-73 with 2:10 remaining. On North Carolina's next possession, Stackhouse missed a jumper from the right baseline, but Rasheed Wallace hauled in the rebound and scored on a putback with 1:53 left - 76-73, Tar Heels. With 20.2 seconds left, UMass' Mike Williams hit a 3-point basket to tie it at 76-76. North Carolina had two attempts before the buzzer, both by Donald Williams, but missed.

"We played a great team, but overall we were a little quicker and that helped us," said UMass coach John Calipari.

Carolina coach Dean Smith concurred. "Our shots didn't go down, but their quickness to the ball hurt us. I was really impressed with that," Smith said.

UMass took its first lead, 41-40, on a bucket by Camby with 19:39 left, and after a North Carolina miss, the Minutemen went up, 43-40, on a turnaround jumper by Roe.

Yet the lead evaporated just as quickly. Donald Williams hit a 3-point basket with 18:10 left to start a 6-0 Carolina run, putting the Tar Heels up, 46-43. The Minutemen responded as Camby scored inside to key a 7-0 run, putting the Minutemen up 50-46. UMass went ahead, 56-52, with 13:53 remaining on a dunk by Jeff Meyer.

Carolina then scored 12 unanswered points to take a 64-56 lead with 10:26 left. The Minutemen stayed close, and with 8:50 remaining pulled within 64-62 on two free throws by Bright. Bright hit a pull-up jumper with 7:30 left to keep the Minutemen close (67-64), but then fouled out with 4:53 remaining and UMass trailing, 73-66.

For the first four minutes, UMass seemed far removed from the No. 1 basketball team in the nation. It looked like varsity playing junior varsity. The Tar Heels overpowered the Minutemen at both ends of the floor.

They blocked UMass jumpers. They forced turnovers with a backcourt trap. They crashed the boards three and four at a time. They shot jumpers. They scored inside. And at times, all UMass could do was stand there and watch.

North Carolina scored its first two jumpers on back-to-back pull-ups by Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese. After two UMass misses, Eric Montross scored on a free throw, then blocked Roe's shot at the other end. Reese then scored on a putback between Roe and Camby. After another UMass miss, Donald Williams scored on a breakaway dunk with 16:19 left to give the Tar Heels an 11-0 lead.

UMass finally scored on a jumper by Bright with 15:59 to go, but North Carolina followed with a Williams 3-point basket for a 14-2 lead.

The Minutemen scored on five of their next six possessions but couldn't stop North Carolina as the teams matched each other basket for basket. Then, with 8:56 left, UMass made a run.

Trailing, 23-13, the Minutemen picked up their defensive intensity and began diving and crashing the boards as often as their taller, more athletic opponents. Moreover, Roe's shots started to fall from all angles. He scored 8 points over a four-minute span to pull UMass to 29-23. After two free throws by Reese, Derek Kellogg drained a 3-pointer at the top of the key to pull the Minutemen to 31-26 with 4:41 to go.

Kevin Salvadori hit two free throws and Reese followed with one to put UNC ahead, 34-28, but UMass responded. Kellogg hit one free throw and Dingle followed with two more to cut the lead to 34-31 with 2:59 to go. Edgar Padilla cut it to 37-35 with 1:47 left on a jumper from the top of the key.

After a Salvadori miss, Roe hit two free throws to tie it, 37-37, with 1:21 left, sending the UMass cheering section into a frenzy.

That was quelled momentarily when Phelps dribbled down and drained a 3-point basket.

But UMass didn't panic. On the last play of the half, Jeff Meyer took a feed and dunked with :02 to go, making it 40-39, North Carolina.

In Facing Tar Heels, UMass Comes Of Age
By Bob Ryan, The Boston Globe Columnist, 11/25/1993

NEW YORK - There was a time not so very long ago when a compelling case could be made that the worst Division 1 college basketball team in these United States of America resided in Amherst, Mass.

The University of Massachusetts Minutemen won two games in 1979-80 and three in 1980-81. As bad as the former team was, the latter was clearly inferior. That's because the 1980-81 squad went 0-for-the-season against Division 1 competition, defeating only Bryant (in OT, no less), AIC and Bentley.

Seven years later, the university entrusted its basketball fortunes to a young assistant from Pittsburgh named John Calipari and the idea of a UMass basketball team being incapable of defeating anyone but a Division 2 school vanished forever, or whenever Calipari heads for an even more prestigious land grant university, whichever comes first. UMass is now one of the reigning Somebodies of college basketball.

Calipari insists on a very high stack of bibles he isn't going anywhere, that running the UMass basketball program represents a sufficiently interesting challenge. He honestly believes he has the resources to, as they say, Get The Job Done.

Last night's immediate task was to find a way to defeat -- or, at least, annoy -- a team that many experts believe has a chance to become one of the great collegiate juggernauts of all time. The luck of the draw in the Big Apple NIT Tournament placed UMass against mighty North Carolina in the second game of a semifinal doubleheader at Madison Square Garden.

"North Carolina has two major weaknesses," Calipari joked. "Their fourth-team center doesn't score and their fourth-team point guard turns the ball over."

There are, it should be pointed out, those who believe he isn't joking.

As a measure of just what UMass has become, be advised that according to those who make a living assessing such things, this UNC-UMass game featured the top two recruiting classes in the country among their freshman players. Writes hoop guru Chris Wallace in the new edition of "Dick Vitale's Basketball," a quite thorough preseason publication, "Massachusetts has benefited from its hot teams and John Calipari's hustling coaching staff the past two years. The program's recent success demonstrates how strong recruiting can turn a once-downtrodden program into a power."

Recruiting is what it's all about, of course. You're not going to become a permanent resident of the Top 20 and an occasional dweller in the Top 10 unless you can attract the kind of kids that have coaches salivating. A Marcus Camby, for example.

Marcus Camby is the reason for UMass' recruiting ranking. He is a 6-foot- 11-inch center from Hartford Public High School. "Not since Julius Erving has UMass had such an important recruit," notes Wallace.

Camby had a quiet foul-laden debut against Cleveland State last Thursday night, but he gave the UMass fans a taste of what will come in even greater force two nights later when he hit Towson State with 16 points and 13 rebounds during a 27-point Minuteman triumph. He is one of those ultra-skinny guys, but he can play. Specifically, he can disrupt games because he has extraordinary quickness and a rare shot-blocking and altering gift. Against the great preponderance of UMass opponents, he will own the middle.

Last night was not expected to be one of those nights, however. North Carolina suits up no fewer than four 7-footers, three of whom can play. Camby's inexperience and lack of muscle was not likely to faze Eric Montross, the hulking and aggressive Tar Heel center. Throw in Kevin Salvadori and freshman sensation Rahsheed Wallace, and Dean Smith had the ultimate coaching comfort: safety in numbers. One way or the other, this game was going to be a memorable experience for young Mr. Camby.

UMass had another major worry. The Minutemen are, at present, one of those run-the-floor and second-shot teams somewhat bereft of outside shooting. The only proven jump-shooting commodity is junior guard Michael Williams, and he was listed as "doubtful" after sustaining a sprained ankle in practice Monday. Take him away and the only real shooting threat is freshman Carmelo Traveiso, a Dorchester product via Thayer Academy. Traveiso did hit three 3- pointers against Towson State. Making them against the No. 1 team in the country in only his third college game would be a very difficult request. So UMass would have to take its chances against UNC playing its athletic game, pitting the quickness and inside abilities of junior Lou Roe, sophomore Dana Dingle and highly-touted sophomore Donta Bright against the Tar Heels.

Bright is a household name among high school recruiting freaks nationwide. Two years ago he was a top-10 player out of legendary Dunbar High in Baltimore. Signing Bright was a loud message that Calipari could recruit with anyone. Bright was academically ineligible last year, but the 6-6 forward is ready to play now and is a major reason why UMass is being picked to battle Temple for the top spot in the ever-improving Atlantic 10, and why UMass is in everyone's preseason Top 20.

Were they ready to play North Carolina on the day before Thanksgiving? Probably not. The UMass team of late November will be several notches higher by the first of March. But if you're a UMass fan, ask yourself this: Would you rather beat Bryant in OT or lose to North Carolina?

Upsets a local specialty
By Bob Ryan, The Boston Globe Columnist, 11/25/1993

NEW YORK - It's official now. It is definitely New England College Upset Week.

Photo - Click for larger image
John Calipari emotional? Nah.
The odds on this parlay have got to be incalculable. Danny Sheridan's computer would OD before coming up with any such scenario.

First, Boston College beats No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. And now Your State U. has climbed an unthinkable summit in college basketball, outhustling, out-quicking and, yes, outscoring top-ranked North Carolina, 91-86, in a semifinal game of the preseason NIT.

There isn't much doubt about it: this is the greatest moment in the history of UMass basketball, and it came in an improbable performance. The Minutemen trailed, 11-0, and were very, very close to being overwhelmed and discouraged. But coach John Calipari wouldn't let his team quit.

And spunk is what enabled UMass to pull off this spectacular overtime triumph. The Minutemen were badly outsized, but utilized their quickness edge to pound North Carolina on the boards. UMass racked up 27 points on second shots, and without these extra attempts there was no way they could stay with the deeper and more powerful Tar Heels.

Michael Williams will go down as the No. 1 hero by virtue of two killer threes. The junior from Weaver High in Hartford drilled a 3-pointer to tie the game at 76 with 20.2 seconds remaining, forcing the OT. He also knocked in the game-clincher, a 3-point dagger from the right side to give UMass an 88-84 lead with 13.2 seconds to play.

That basket was much larger than life, because UMass, stripped of three players by fouls and apparently being seized by an attack of Tar Heels flu, was in the process of blowing a 7-point lead (84-77) it held with 1:59 to go.

This game bore no resemblance to the first UMass-UNC confrontation, which took place in this same building at 11 a.m. on a March Saturday in 1970. It was a first-round NIT game that was supposed to showcase a sensation named Julius Erving (no one had yet heard of Dr. J) against the heavily-favored Tar Heels. It was nothing less than a Nightmare on 33rd Street, as Dean's boys rolled to a 90-49 victory. Erving fouled out early in the second half, having been held to 13 undistinguished points.

Dean Smith, college hoop God, couldn't believe what he saw as his #1 Tar Heels fell.
Nothing much has changed in Chapel Hill, but just about everything is different in Amherst. The Carolina assembly line has rolled off victory after victory and a couple of national championships. UMass? Well, just a decade ago, the Minutemen had the distinction of being the absolute worst team in all of Division 1. They won two games in 1979-80 and were even worse the following year when they went 0-for-the-season against Division 1 teams, defeating only Bryant (in overtime), AIC and Bentley.

UMass is Somebody now. The team Calipari put on the floor against North Carolina contains players many a rival coach would mortgage his soul for. Let's start with Lou Roe, the junior from Atlantic City whose relentless board-pounding and slick inside moves were impossible for the taller Carolina front line to handle. Roe finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds. I have a feeling he might get a vote or two for the North Carolina all-opponent team.

Then move on to such players as Dana Dingle, whose 6 quick points ignited UMass in overtime; Donta Bright, the much-anticipated forward from Baltimore who has the look of a thoroughbred all over him, and 6-foot-11-inch freshman center Marcus Camby, one of the most sought-after pivot prospects in the land.

Camby was unable to celebrate the glorious victory he had done so much to produce since he had been helped off the floor 16 seconds into the OT after sustaining a mysterious knee injury. The slender kid from Hartford had battled the beefier Tar Heel front line with great heart and determination all night long, and if he is going to be sidelined for any length of time this could prove to be a horribly bittersweet triumph for the Minutemen.

This Carolina team was already being touted as potentially one of the great outfits of all time. Smith returned four starters from the defending national championship unit, and in forward Jerry Stackhouse and center Rasheed Wallace he is supposed to have the best 1-2 freshman punch in the country. But one thing Carolina does not have - never really seems to have, in fact - is exceptional quickness. The Heels aren't slow, and they're not land-locked, but they aren't as quick as UMass and they don't have the up-down, up-down multijump explosiveness UMass demonstrated on the glass last night.

In order to pull this one out, the Minutemen had to pick themselves up after a major Carolina blast had changed a 56-50 lead into a 74-66 Tar Heel advantage with 4:53 left in regulation. And they had to get the job done in OT without Bright, who had fouled out; floor leader Derek Kellogg, who had fouled out, and Camby, who was in the locker room worrying about his career. Any and all questions about grit and fortitude were answered last night.

Dean Smith will roll on and on. He'll use this as a motivational tool. But for John Calipari this game will serve as yet another recruiting prop for a program that probably still has more respect outside the Commonwealth than within.

UMass over North Carolina: for New England hoop freaks, it just doesn't get any better than this.

Minutemen Blew Some Minds With A Second Wind
By Joe Burris, The Boston Globe Staff, 11/26/1993

NEW YORK - With 4:41 left in the first half of Wednesday night's Massachusetts-North Carolina game, Minuteman guard Derek Kellogg hit a 3-point basket that cut what was once an 11-point deficit to 5 (31-26). Just before UMass switched to defense, shooting guard Mike Williams glanced at the North Carolina players.

What he saw made him confident that his team was on the verge of a major upset in the pre-season National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

"You could see it in their faces -- they were nervous," said Williams. ''They just gave it their best, and we took the challenge and came back. I saw it. Their faces said, 'Oh boy, they're back in the game,' and the first half wasn't even finished."

Before the half ended, top-ranked North Carolina would show more signs of frustration, and UMass would tie the game. The 18th-ranked Minutemen trailed by 1 when the buzzer sounded, and they ran off the court in jubilation.

Most observers probably felt Carolina would make up for the embarrassment with a second-half onslaught. Tar Heel fans urged their players to step it up a notch and lead the charge. As the game wore on and the teams traded leads, fans kept calling for the knockout punch.

It wasn't until the scoreboard read "Minutemen 91, Tar Heels 86" and the clock showed all zeroes that the crowd of 13,970 at Madison Square Garden discovered what Williams knew with 4:41 left in the first half.

"I kept seeing Carolina center Eric Montross get frustrated; he was being contested for easy baskets and that wasn't happening against other teams," said Williams, who hit clutch 3-pointers with 20.2 seconds left in regulation that sent the game into overtime and with 13.2 seconds left in OT with UMass up by 1. "All their shots were contested shots, and that's what we were trying to do, make it difficult for them to shoot the easy shots."

The Minutemen (3-0) will face sixth-ranked Kansas (3-0) tonight in the NIT final, but they will be without the services of 6-foot-11-inch freshman center Marcus Camby, who injured his right knee in overtime. UMass officials say Camby suffered a possible tear of the meniscus.

"Right now he just has ice on it," said coach John Calipari. "He still doesn't have a lot of motion in it. They felt the cartilage might have just come out of joint, and that's why he's not getting any motion."

Center Jeff Meyer, at 7-2, started in Camby's place in practice yesterday and is expected to get the nod against the Jayhawks, whose lineup includes talented 7-footer Greg Ostertag.

The UMass coaching staff, apparently incredulous about the upset of the Tar Heels, stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching it on tape -- twice. Yesterday, players said they weren't receiving due respect.

"People are still saying we're going to lose by double figures to Kansas," said forward Lou Roe, who had a career-high 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against UNC. "We just don't get any respect, do we?

"What do we have to do? We beat the No. 1 team in the nation, and now we're playing Kansas and we don't have a shot. But it's all right. I like being the underdog going into games."

Calipari expects Kansas to be the clear favorite, but not by as much as North Carolina was.

"We're going to be double-digit underdogs, and without Marcus, that puts us at a disadvantage," said Calipari. "But I will say this: They will be really cautious before they say they don't give us a chance. They'll say, 'They have little chance to win this game. They can't have two great performances. But they're pretty good, though.' "

UMass' win and Boston College's upset of top-ranked Notre Dame in football last Saturday have put college sports in the limelight in the pro-minded state of Massachusetts. But Calipari said that won't last long.

"It'll last for a couple of hours," he said. "When's the next Bruins game? When do the Celtics play next? The Celtics are now playing well. If they beat the Suns, that will be headlines. If BC upsets West Virginia, that will be second page. But we accept that, and that's a process you don't change overnight."

Calipari does expect the win to be a recruiting boost down the road.

"I do believe it does help for the junior class," he said. "We need to have a good junior class and sophomore class to sustain what we're doing. We have this entire team back, plus signee Tyrone Weeks.

"Next year we have to bring in some kids for the following year because we're going to lose some good players."

Memory of upset still bliss
By Marty Dobrow, Special to The Daily Hampshire Gazette, 11/26/2003

Ten years later, they have fanned out across the globe. They are on one side or the other of 30, far removed from those halcyon days of college. But here on Thanksgiving Eve 2003, the memories bring them back to a moment that has never stopped shining.

Ah yes, says Carmelo Travieso from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, his 6-month-old son gurgling in the background. ''The miracle on 34th Street.''

Buy Dobrow's book from
GOING BIGTIME: the Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball - by Marty Dobrow
Back in the womb of his native Wisconsin (a rather claustrophobic image, given his height of 7-feet, 2-inches), sporting goods salesman Jeff Meyer gladly takes a few big strides down memory lane. He recounts the play at the end of the first half, when, he insists, point guard Derek Kellogg announced ''Merry Christmas'' as he released the pass to Meyer, who, with startling power, dunked over the All-American center on the No. 1 team in the nation, Eric Montross of North Carolina. Whenever the game is replayed on ESPN Classic, the calls flood in to his Appleton home.

Kellogg is back in a womb of sorts, too. He is an assistant coach at the University of Memphis, where he once again takes direction from John Calipari. The coaching business does not reward nostalgia. It's a pragmatic field, straight ahead; hit the next challenge as hard as you can. But prodded to take a look in the rearview mirror, he recalls the surreal quality of the evening: ''Walking out onto the floor of Madison Square Garden with the lights, the cameras, the Carolina blue, and Dean Smith - you add all those things together and it makes for a great basketball-slash-movie atmosphere.''

Even across the big drink in the coastal city of Alicante, Spain, Lou Roe sinks into a delicious reverie. ''Oh man,'' he says. ''Having been a part of that (game) is an unbelievable feeling. It's like the feeling of having something new.''

You step back into that moment, a decade ago, and that's how it feels. The newness. The freshness. The innocence of it all. This was a year before the Boston Globe grades story. Two years before the Final Four appearance that was voided by the NCAA. The rise of UMass basketball seemed to be nothing but the sweetest sports story around.

By the time they took on Carolina in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, the Minutemen were not an unknown entity. They had been to the NCAA tournament two years in a row. They were ranked 18th in the nation. They had won some big games.

This, though, was a quantum leap. UMass had gone 0-12 in its history against top-10 teams, and never before had played No. 1. Carolina was iconic, the gold standard of college hoops. No program had won more games. This crew was the defending national champs. Four starters were back. Throw in a recruiting class that included three future NBA players, two of them all-stars (Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace). Dean Smith, soon to be the winningest coach in the history of the sport, was that very night coaching the 1,000th game of his distinguished career. Did UMass have any shot? Dick Vitale was succinct in his forecast on ESPN: ''No chance, baby!''

Of course, the Minutemen did have a little history against UNC and Smith at the Garden. A generation before in the postseason NIT, UMass had gone down to the Garden led by Julius Erving, and lost by a mere 41 points.

This time it looked like it was going to be far worse. Just 3:41 into the game the Minutemen trailed 11-0. Roe admits to being mesmerized. ''I was incredibly nervous,'' he recalls. ''I think we were all star-struck in that moment.''

When they got back to the huddle during the timeout, Calipari was in everyone's face at once. ''I'm not letting this happen!'' he screamed. It was the height of arrogance. It was absurd.

It was also his unique gift. As cheapened as some would come to regard the ''Refuse to Lose'' motto when it became not just a cliché but a commodity, there was no denying the spirit, the way he managed to instill his fire in others, to make them push through perceived limits to some outer edge.

That night played out like a dream. Roe, who has found a solid niche in Europe after floundering in the NBA (just 66 games in parts of two seasons, a 2.0 scoring average), was the best player on the court. On the offensive glass he seemed possessed, every rebound an urgent quest. He scored 28 points, hauled down 14 rebounds, and at a relatively thin 6-7, dominated a trio of future NBA behemoths: Montross, and Wallace, and Kevin Salvadori.

UMass pulled within one at the half on Meyer's memorable dunk, and weathered every charge by the Tar Heels after intermission. With 20 seconds left, down three, UMass got the ball to Mike Williams on the left wing.

Ah, Mike Williams - the most intriguing Minuteman, infuriating, endearing Mike Williams - the man who Calipari would ultimately boot from the team, but not before watching him ''hit more big shots than anybody in the history of college basketball.'' And here on this night, with Stackhouse racing out and leaping, Williams extended, released, and sent the ball sailing in cleanly for three.

At the buzzer Carolina's Williams - reigning Final Four MVP Donald Williams - missed a jumper, and briefly clasped the hand of Kellogg (recruited by exactly two Division I schools, UMass and lowly Fairfield). Respect had arrived.

''We've got five minutes to go,'' Calipari exhorted. ''I need every ounce you have.''

The overtime seemed to last forever. Sixteen seconds in, UMass freshman Marcus Camby, playing his third college game, crumpled in a heap, having torn his meniscus. Camby had given everyone a hint that night of both the fluid grace that would one day make him the best college player in the land and the maddening frailty that would trip his career time and time again.

In his absence, unheralded Dana Dingle scored three quick hoops. Carolina fought back. UMass was up just one with 13 seconds left, the shot clock winding down, when Mike Williams once more let fly for three. Two minutes before midnight the final buzzer sounded on the 91-86 victory by UMass.

In the aftermath of that game, a few things stood out. Williams, typically so mitigated about everything, stood atop the scorer's table, beaming with unadulterated joy. In the bowels of the Garden, Calipari seemed unusually calm. So in love with the competitive moment, he seemed adrift in its aftermath. His voice was level, almost numb, as he tried to put it into perspective: ''You gotta understand,'' he said. ''This is the No. 1 team in America, and here we are, little 'ol UMass ...''

Later that night the full force of the win hit him. He watched the tape with friends in his hotel suite at the Marriott Marquis, then walked the streets of Times Square in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. Longtime friend Duffy Burns said, ''He was as excited as I've ever seen anyone be.''

The sports metaphor is dangerous, of course, bordering as it does on sappy cliché. Just because one player unexpectedly triumphs, or a team pulls a huge upset, it doesn't mean that anything in the world can happen. Still, that night seemed supercharged with possibility.

It was, of course, just the beginning for UMass: ''The launching pad for what was to come,'' says Meyer. The Minutemen would again knock off the No. 1 team in each of the next two seasons, a trifecta that might never again be achieved in college basketball. They would earn the No. 1 ranking themselves, wearing it sometimes as a badge of honor, and sometimes as an albatross. The team and its fans would see an Elite Eight. A Final Four. A profound loss of innocence, and a belief in the end that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

But they would never again see anything with quite so much pure joy as that magical night in New York.

Marty Dobrow, a former sports writer at the Gazette, teaches journalism at Springfield College.

partial box-score

North Carolina Tar Heels (#1) 86 OT
Massachusetts Minutemen (#22) 91
Preseason National Invitational Tournament Semi-final
at Madison Square Garden, New York NY

Massachusetts (91)
                fg     ft
               m-a    m-a   pts
Dingle         4-8    3-6    11
Roe          11-21   6-15    28
Camby          2-7    2-2     6
Williams      5-16    4-6    17
Kellogg        1-8    1-2     4
Bright         3-8   8-10    15
E. Padilla     2-4    0-0     4
Travieso       0-1    0-0     0
Meyer          3-3    0-1     6
             -----  -----    --
Totals       31-76  24-42    91
              .408   .571

North Carolina     40   36   10  -   86
Massachusetts      39   37   15  -   91

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