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Chiarelli: In a losing effort, UMass now knows it can play with anybody

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian


RICHMOND, Va. — The Massachusetts men’s basketball had a choice to make Saturday.

The easy decision would’ve been to fold, to submit to the Havoc and the pressure that Virginia Commonwealth hurled at it. Pack up the team bus, get to the chartered flight home and cut the losses – a 27-11 deficit early in the first half at the Siegel Center is practically a death wish.

Of course, UMass could dig in and fight and attempt to show the backbone of a team that still thinks it’s one of the elite in the Atlantic 10 Conference despite not showing it this week. But good luck, as VCU comes in droves and it punishes mistakes and, the Minutemen proved this week they’ll make some mistakes.

This was the harder choice, the more difficult route. A road that the Minutemen may have not even chose to traverse at earlier points in this season.

Yet it did against the Rams. And while it still wasn’t good enough – UMass lost 78-72 – it showed something.

The Minutemen belong.

“I think we can play with them,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “They’re the perennial best team in our conference and I don’t think there’s that much separation.”

The Minutemen understood, too. UMass took VCU’s flurry at the onset, staggered back and survived. The Rams didn’t want to go 12 rounds with the Minutemen, but they had to.

UMass erased the early deficit, drew to within five at halftime and, even after again falling behind by as many as 12 points, stormed back to take a 48-47 lead with 12 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.

It was a stunning comeback, the kind that isn’t expected from a team that commits 19 turnovers, gets 21 points out of Cady Lalane and Maxie Esho and shoots 33 percent from the 3-point line. But there they were, right in the thick of it – 12 minutes away from stealing a victory.

Of course, VCU then went on an 11-2 run, reminding the Minutemen who dictates play in the Atlantic 10. UMass would cut it to 70-67 with under a minute left, but it was too late. The Minutemen lost again – their second crucial loss of the week.

It’s been the theme all year: UMass was good, but not great. UMass showed it could hang, but couldn’t do it consistently.

But the Minutemen also proved they could fight back. It’s tough to call a second straight loss progress – but they should enter the final stretch of the season feeling better about themselves.

UMass is not an NCAA tournament team, at least not now. In that regard, Saturday’s loss at VCU was devastating – it offered a chance to bolster the Minutemen’s at-large resume in a national landscape that’s a fairly weak bubble. To make matters worse, it’s on the heels of a disappointing 75-59 loss to Rhode Island Wednesday.

But UMass also knows it can now play with the Rams.

“If you take away the 10,000 fans all dressed in one color and everything that goes with that, I think we could have been right there with a chance to make the game-winner,” Kellogg said.

If only there was an opportunity for something like that to happen this year. In say, I don’t know, Brooklyn, New York?

Bingo.

Presumably, the road to an Atlantic 10 Championship runs through VCU. The Atlantic 10’s seen its share of upheaval – whether it’s an injury-riddled Rams squad, a Dayton team overcoming a shortened roster or George Washington’s recent collapse – but VCU still holds its head the highest.

UMass needs a run deep into the conference tournament to realistically sniff an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Combine that with its current RPI (34) and it might be enough. At best, some combination of Dayton, Rhode Island, VCU, Davidson and George Washington awaits the Minutemen.

They’ve already beat Dayton and Rhode Island and handed Davidson a victory. UMass faces the Colonials the last game of the season, but at this rate, the Colonials are falling faster than the Redcoats at the Battle of Trenton.

That leaves VCU – the toughest test, yet a team to be had.

The Minutemen would need to string together multiple wins back-to-back, a difficult for a task as helter-skelter as this year’s team. They’ve fallen short in crucial situations much more than they’ve succeeded this season – Brooklyn is the final chance.

They’ll return to Amherst this week disappointed, beaten and in need of a regroup. When that happens, UMass will reassess its performance Saturday and take away positives. The comeback, the 39-30 rebounding margin, its defensive performance in the first half – all positives.

The Minutemen will move forward, the window of opportunity smaller and the margin for error slimmer. But now, they know for certain they can play with any team in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

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One Response to “Chiarelli: In a losing effort, UMass now knows it can play with anybody”
  1. Tony Dennis says:

    I like it

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