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Harris leading UMass to tournament in rebuilding year

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Even as a freshman, Ricky Harris built a reputation on stepping up for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team when the postseason is on the line.

He scored seven points in seven minutes against Alabama in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament on March 13, 2007. He converted 5-of-6 from the free-throw line, including one with 14.3 seconds left to put UMass up, 82-80.

The Crimson Tide drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime after then-sophomore Chris Lowe converted on a free throw of his own. The Minutemen eventually battled back and won, 89-87.

As a sophomore, Harris led UMass with 23 points as a starter in the 2008 NIT Quarterfinals before a 16-point performance against Florida in the Semifinals. His contribution helped his former coach, Travis Ford, get the Minutemen to the NIT Championship against Ohio State, where they fell short in a 92-85 loss.

In the ideal situation, Harris would want his last season to be his best, but with UMass in rebuilding mode, just getting into the Atlantic 10 tournament was going to be a challenge for the second year in a row.

The Minutemen needed either a win over Rhode Island or a Saint Joseph’s loss in order to avoid missing the A-10 tournament.

Similar to years past, Harris lived up to the challenge with 28 points on Saturday against URI as he lifted UMass (12-19, 5-11 A-10) to a 69-67 victory over the Rams. He also hit the biggest shot of the game, a layup with three seconds remaining to give the Minutemen the win and a first-round matchup with Charlotte.

Harris showed once again that he wasn’t ready for his last game wearing the No. 5 jersey for UMass. Even with a 5-for-13 shooting night, he finished the game with 24 points thanks to 11-of-12 free-throw shooting, boosting his team to its first A-10 tournament win since 2002.

The Minutemen will get to play third-seeded Richmond for the first time this season.

“Ricky Harris is really leading us and playing like a senior should play in tournament play,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said following the win over Charlotte.

Throughout the season, Harris has been frustrated with UMass losing as many games as it has. However, he never gave up on the inexperience or struggles facing the Minutemen with the hope of leaving his legacy on some sort of positive note, even if it isn’t the NCAA tournament.

Harris was the leading scorer in 10 of the last 13 games with at least 20 points in nine of those contests. Even when he scored the team-high in points during that stretch, UMass was still 4-6.

In fact, the two times he scored at least 30 points (Feb. 6 against URI and March 3 against La Salle), the Minutemen lost. To make matters worse, they lost point guard David Gibbs to a broken foot, which gave Kellogg no choice but to start Freddie Riley, giving UMass three freshmen in the starting lineup.

Regardless of the box score, Harris continued to work with the younger players and worked hard in practice while staying optimistic.

His patience eventually paid off.

Freshman Javorn Farrell had two blocks in the win against the 49ers while forward Terrell Vinson hit a jumper to put the Minutemen up by three points with 54.8 seconds left in the game. UMass held on for the victory after Charlotte called a timeout and drew a technical foul for having six players out on the floor.

Even if Friday is the last time Harris ever puts on a uniform, he can leave knowing that he broke eight years of losing in the A-10 tournament in a year that was supposed to be about the future.

“It’s unbelievable, and it’s a pleasure to watch them,” Harris said of his teammates following the first round of the A-10 tournament. “I wish I had another year, because next year they will be a good team with well-rounded individuals.”

Adam Miller can be reached at amiller@dailycollegian.com.

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