Trailing by 17 at Drexel with 16 minutes, 29 seconds, it appeared all the magic had run out for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team this season. And had the season ended on Tuesday night, it would’ve left the program with a reason to keep its head up and be excited for the bright future awaiting the Minutemen.
However, it turns out UMass was merely saving its biggest comeback of the season for its biggest moment.
The Minutemen mounted an improbable run; a stretch that made one wonder what sort of team had shown up for the first 26 minutes of play. And thanks to a 26-7 tear over a 9:07 span midway through the second half, UMass took its first lead of the game at the 7:22 mark and didn’t look back, triumphing over the Dragons in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals, 72-70.
With the win, the Minutemen advance to the semifinals of the NIT to face the winner of Nevada and Stanford in Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Clinging to a 72-70 lead, UMass made one more stop with 15.7 seconds remaining to secure the victory. Drexel’s Frantz Massenat drove to the lane but his attempt was no good as the Minutemen batted the ball behind half court. Chris Fouch couldn’t get off a last-second heave in time as the horn sounded and UMass completed the unthinkable.
“I’m just proud of the team,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg in a radio interview. “Like I said all along, I’ve really enjoyed coaching these guys. I love being around them and they’re playing their butts off. To see them to not quit, to continue to play, was just fantastic.”
The Minutemen (25-11) looked overmatched by the frontcourt of Drexel in the first half, surrendering an eye-popping 34 points in the paint and 12 offensive rebounds that turned into 17 points off turnovers for the Dragons. Offensively, UMass shied away from the 3-point shot – going 0-for-2 from downtown in the first half – which has been a staple part of its offense all year.
Turns out all it took was the typical UMass basketball formula of forcing turnovers, getting in transition and causing chaos to get back into the game. The Minutemen strung together a pair of runs – a 9-0 spurt and 9-2 stretch – to bring the former 17-point deficit into a one possession game, 57-54, with 10:03 remaining. During that 10:26 frame, UMass forced six turnovers and turned them into layups and 3-pointers in transition, including just the Minutemen’s second successful 3-pointer of the game when Chaz Williams turned a steal into a pull-up triple, forcing Drexel to call a timeout to try and stop the bleeding.
It was too late. UMass was just getting started.
After Terrell Vinson reeled off five straight points to make it a 60-59 game, Javorn Farrell forced a Dragons turnover, giving Jesse Morgan the ball on the break. The sophomore pulled up at the 3-point line and buried a trey to give the Minutemen their first lead of the night, 62-60, with 7:22 left to play in the game.
From that moment on, Vinson took over. UMass continued to feed its most reliable option and the Baltimore, Md. native responded with six straight points to give the Minutemen their largest lead of the game, 68-62, with 4:14 left to play.
Vinson was on fire down the stretch, scoring 14 of his 18 points in the second half alone to help reverse the team from a potential blowout loss to a thrilling victory.
“We played defense, we came back, we fought,” said Vinson. “They gave it to me a little bit, I scored a few buckets and it was game [over].”
As UMass was climbing back into the game, Kellogg took on the roll of cheerleader, challenging the minimal Minutemen fan base to compete with the Drexel’s lively home crowd, which had the small Daskalakis Center rumbling for most of the game.
“I was really just having some fun, honestly. I mean, they had the rest of the building all sold out and screaming all game so we needed to get our guys going.”
Williams finished the game with a game-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting while also playing the entire 40 minutes of the contest. Morgan added 13 while no other Minuteman registered more than more than six.
Dartaye Ruffin finished with 17 points for Drexel off the bench, but couldn’t register a basket in the second half. It was a similar story for Samme Givens, who had 10 points in the first half on 4-for-5 shooting but only managed two points at a 1-for-7 pace in the final frame.
The win marks the program’s first trip to the NIT Final Four since 2008 when UMass shrugged off a 22-point deficit to beat Syracuse in the quarterfinals. And with three straight road wins over Mississippi State, Seton Hall and now the Dragons, the Minutemen are just the fourth team to reach the semifinals in such a fashion.
UMass will have a week off before it heads to MSG on March 27 for a chance to reach the NIT championship game.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.