Postseason r’eacute;sum’eacute; in flux

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Courtesy UMass Media Relations

(Editors note: Today’s issue went to print before yesterday’s UMass-Xavier matchup. Check out Tuesday’s paper for complete coverage.)

Every time the Massachusetts men’s basketball team is on the cusp of reaching the Top 25 this season, something gets in its way.

That something always seems to be the Saint Joseph’s Hawks.

At two different junctures, the Minutemen have been a win or two away from cracking the Top 25 for the first time since 1998 – and twice has coach Travis Ford’s squad fallen to the Hawks at the inopportune time.

Despite the two losses to its conference foe, UMass (13-5, 2-2 Atlantic 10) performed well in its 10 games over winter break, and in the process gained some national recognition and attention.

It’s not often a team can beat the likes of both Boston College and Syracuse on the road (and set a visiting team Carrier Dome record with 107 points), while having two players average over 20 points per game and go relatively unnoticed. But after UMass gave undefeated Vanderbilt a run for its money and beat No. 14 Dayton on the road, people began to take notice.

Ford appeared on ESPN’s First Take on Jan. 10, and ESPN analyst Andy Katz wrote about Gary Forbes in his popular blog and named Ricky Harris ESPN Player of the Week for his efforts at Dayton and home against Charlotte.

So this team isn’t as completely under the radar as they once hoped for.

Even with the setbacks against the Hawks, UMass remains in decent shape for a NCAA berth for the first time since 1998 if they play well down the stretch. They have three remaining games against teams that are ranked or were at one point this season – one against Xavier and two against Rhode Island.

But before looking ahead, let’s take a look back over break and see how the Minutemen faired.

Saint Joe’s 81, UMass 77

A spectacular scoring flourish in the second half (61 points) for the Minutemen wasn’t enough to overcome an awful first half (16 points), and the Hawks once again defeated UMass, 81-77, in Philadelphia on Jan. 23.

Forbes and Harris each had just four points in the opening stanza, but both exploded after halftime to finish with 23 and 30, respectively. The 30 points for Harris was a career-high, and the effort was enough to surpass Forbes for the team-lead in scoring.

Although the poor first half seemed to be the difference (16 points on 7-of-35 shooting), it was the disparity in free throws made that may have done the Minutemen in. The Hawks hit 30 more free throws than UMass did (39-9) and went to the line 54 times to UMass’s 18.

UMass 86, Charlotte 79

Harris (24 points) led four Minutemen in double figures, while Etienne Brower had a double-double in a reserve role to lead UMass past the 49ers, 86-79, at the Mullins Center on Jan. 19. Tony Gaffney started, played 30 minutes and didn’t score, but provided clutch defense with five blocks and eight rebounds in a game that featured nine ties and 13 lead changes.

UMass hit 11 3-pointers (Harris had four), out-scored Charlotte by 10 at the foul line and blocked 12 shots. Forbes and Milligan each added 14 points and the Minutemen handed the 49ers their first loss within the conference.

UMass 82, Dayton 71

The road victories against both BC and Syracuse were big in their own ways, but the triumph over then-No. 14 Dayton on Jan. 16 is the most important win of the season for UMass. For starters, BC hasn’t been ranked once all season and Syracuse was only ranked briefly at the very beginning of the season.

The Flyers had won 13 consecutive games before the Minutemen pulled the 82-71 upset in Ohio. Harris shot at a torrid pace from the outside (5-for-11) and led the team with 22 points. Point guard Chris Lowe had one of his best games to date, scoring 19 points and handing out six assists without committing a turnover. Forbes had 16, Dante Milligan had 13 and Brower had 11 points and nine rebounds off the bench.

Dayton struggled all night from the outside (4-for-25) and star Brian Roberts was completely shut down in the first half (two points), allowing the Minutemen to hold a five-point lead at intermission.

Saint Joe’s 98, UMass 92

Defense was hard to come by for both teams in Amherst on Jan. 9 in this 98-92 victory for the Hawks in the A-10 opener.

The Hawks shot an incredible 66.7 percent in the first half (22-of-33) to take an eight-point lead at the half. UMass fought hard throughout but Ahmad Nivins (31 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks) was simply too tough inside for the Minutemen. The starting five for Saint Joseph’s scored all but eight of the 98 points and UMass was out-rebounded by 15.

Harris (25 points) and Forbes (22) paced UMass, but the disparity in rebounds and field goal percentage (58.5 to 42.7) were too much for the Minutemen.

Vanderbilt 97, UMass 88

A lights-out shooting performance by 14-0 Vanderbilt in the second half (most notably Shan Foster) helped the Commodores pull away from UMass for the 97-88 victory in Nashville, Tenn., on Jan.5.

Foster hit nearly everything, connecting on 8-of-12 3-pointers for 32 points. Freshman center A.J. Ogilvy notched 25 points and 11 rebounds, while Jermaine Beal had 19 points. Three players scored more than 20 points for UMass (Lowe, Harris and Forbes) but a 2-for-15 performance by Brower hurt down the stretch. Vanderbilt shot 55.3 percent in the second half, including 8-of-12 from the outside.

UMass held a 37-36 lead at halftime, but Vanderbilt exploded for 61 points in the second half.

UMass 95, Houston 89

Against a solid Houston team (11-1) at home, the Minutemen appeared in serious trouble down 48-37 after the first 20 minutes. But with tough defense, good rebounding and tremendous ball control, UMass had a big second half to defeat Houston, 95-89, on Jan. 2.

The Minutemen struggled from 3-point range (6-of-24), but out-scored Houston by nine points at the line and scored 58 points to Houston’s 41 in the second half.

UMass 60, BU 51

Although the final score appeared close (60-51), the Minutemen were in command from the start, never relinquishing the lead once all game. Forbes led all players with 25 points and 13 rebounds and tied a game-high with four assists.

Harris struggled from the field, but still scored 16 points and Lowe added 14. Freshman Papa Lo provided some excitement at the Mullins Center in 11 minutes off the bench with five blocks.

UMass 79, CCSU 55

Central Connecticut State hung tough with UMass in the first half (trailing 34-33), but the Minutemen soared past the Blue Devils in the second half, out-scoring their opponent 45-22 after halftime.

Ford utilized his bench, playing 16 players in the victory. The reserves contributed 34 points, led by Max Groebe (11 points) and Milligan (10). Three other starters (Harris, Forbes and Brower) scored in double figures.

It was the defense that starred for the Minutemen, as the Blue Devils were limited to 4-of-19 shooting from the perimeter and UMass blocked 18 shots – the highest total since it had 20 against West Virginia in 1995.

UMass 68, Toledo 61

The Rockets fought UMass hard, but poor shooting from star Tyrone Kent (5-of-21; 1-of-10 from 3) ultimately ended their chances of upsetting the Minutemen at the Mullins Center on Dec. 15.

UMass also struggled from the field against the Rockets, but out-scored them at the foul line, 24-5. Forbes, who struggles at the line at times, hit all but one of his 12 attempts. He also led the team with 25 points, while Harris added 17 and Lowe chipped in 11 points and seven assists.

In 37 minutes of play, the reserves for Toledo failed to register a single point and registered five fouls.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]