It may have taken until it advanced to the postseason, but the Massachusetts men’s basketball team may have finally claimed its first signature road victory it was searching for all season long.
During the regular season, UMass (23-11) did most of its work at home. A strong 15-1 record in the comfortable confines of the Mullins Center – and for one game, the Curry Hicks Cage – partly masked the fact that the team held a dismal 4-7 in road games.
Despite the Minutemen’s revival and surprising success, their road woes seemed to be a thorn in their side and probably cost them a chance at advancing to the NCAA tournament instead of the National Invitational Tournament.
While UMass did earn wins against several teams inside the top 100 of the RPI – such as Saint Louis, Xavier and Davidson – during the regular season, those were all home wins. The Minutemen failed to do the same on the road, and despite coming close at Temple late in the season, they never quite got over the hump.
But fast forward to Tuesday night, and UMass finally reversed its road fortunes.
Under the spotlight of the NIT and being nationally televised on ESPN2, the Minutemen finally grabbed a signature road victory – a 101-96 win over Mississippi State in an exciting double overtime thriller. The Bulldogs are 75th in RPI rankings, according to RealTimeRPI.com, and ranked as high as No. 18 nationally in the Top 25 earlier this season.
“People talk about signature wins for our program, to me that was huge,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg in a postgame radio interview. “That was a big-time win to come down to a place like this in Starkville, where they always put out very good teams and have an ultra-talented basketball team with [Dee] Bost and [Arnett] Moultrie and company.
“To come away with a victory against a team who I think has a lottery pick is a huge testament to our toughness, our teamwork and really the brotherhood of UMass basketball,” he added.
And it didn’t come easy. The Minutemen had to overcome foul trouble, fatigue and a breakout game from Moultrie in order to come out on top, and they persevered.
With 41 seconds remaining in regulation, Raphiael Putney picked up his fifth foul on Moultrie – who scored a game-high 34 points – and sent him to the free throw line. Moultrie made both of his free throws, which ultimately sent the game into its first overtime session.
After a back-and-forth extra session – capped by a deep Jalen Steele 3-pointer that sent the game to its second extra session – the Minutemen were in heavy foul trouble.
Chaz Williams (28 points), Terrell Vinson (12 points) and Sean Carter (20 points) all entered the second overtime with four fouls, a scary predicament considering their production to that point.
But UMass somehow prevailed, as it slowed down the game’s frantic pace, and made key buckets while also making key defensive stops at the same time, despite some unfavorable no-calls from the 2,507 fans on hand.
In the end, the Minutemen finally got a huge road win, something they could have used on their NCAA tournament resume, but something Kellogg will settle for as he tries to build his program.
“The guys don’t want to stop playing. I told them, ‘let’s play until July,’” said Kellogg. “If they could keep playing, I think they would play all the way to next season and then just roll it into the next year, which is what you want out of a basketball team and what you want your kids feeling.”
UMass will now get another difficult road test in Seton Hall as it advances to the second round of the NIT this weekend. The Pirates are the top-seeded team in the Minutemen’s bracket. They are currently ranked 68th in RPI and were also considered an NCAA tournament bubble team.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.