Minutemen advance to NIT quarterfinals in comeback victory

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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As the key player who helped Massachusetts fight back against Akron lay on the ground injured, the Minuteman players had doubts they could finish the comeback without him.

But with clutch free throws down the stretch, big 3-pointers by Ricky Harris and stellar point guard play from Chris Lowe, the Minutemen finished the game on a 22-5 run to slip by Akron, 68-63, in the second round of the NIT Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center.

UMass (23-10) advances to the NIT quarterfinals and will draw a rematch with Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Tuesday night. The Minutemen upset the Orange, 107-100, earlier this season, setting a visiting team Carrier Dome record for points scored.

With 8:36 remaining in the game and Akron leading, 58-46, the chances of that rematch appeared unlikely as UMass looked tired and out of it.

Enter Tony Gaffney.

The 6-foot-9 junior forward scored just four points, but his tough defense on Akron star Jeremiah Wood (25 points) and timely steals completely shut down Akron’s offensive rhythm, while also leading to easy UMass baskets during the comeback.

“He’s the glue guy of our team: he keeps us going, he’s the spark off the bench, and he’s basically the energy of the team,” Harris said after the game.

“I don’t know what it is about Tony, but he’s got more energy than anyone on our team, including the coaching staff. We all just feed off of that.”

Wood, who simply had his way with every defender UMass coach Travis Ford put on him, didn’t get the good looks or get anything to go down when Gaffney was on him. But with UMass up 63-60 with 2:38 remaining, Gaffney went down awkwardly and winced in pain on the court for a few minutes with an apparent knee injury.

With Gaffney down and out, that left only Luke Bonner and Dante Milligan (four fouls) – two guys that were no match for Wood – to defend the paint in the final minutes. A sense of trepidation came over some of the players.

“We all got kind of scared and nervous,” Harris said. “That’s one of our teammates; one of our brothers. We just had to keep rolling, because we knew if he was there with us he would have been fighting with us.”

Although the Minutemen lost Gaffney to injury on the play, Gary Forbes drew the foul from Wood and went to the line for two. Forbes converted on both, giving UMass a 65-60 lead with 2:38 left.

But the key play came just before that, on a loose-ball scramble at midcourt. After UMass regained the lead at 61-60 for the first time since early in the second half, Lowe and Nick Dials got tangled while going for the ball. Dials knocked down Lowe by his ankles, and the officials called an intentional foul – giving the Minutemen two free throws and the ball.

In the Atlantic 10 Tournament loss to Charlotte, Lowe missed crucial free throws in the game’s final minutes in the eventual heartbreaking loss. This time around, Lowe calmly sank both free throws, giving the Minutemen a three-point lead. With the ball back, UMass extended the lead to five when Forbes hit two foul shots of his own.

“It was a tough call at that time of the game,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “I don’t know if it was an intentional foul or not, but I don’t really care. We didn’t handle the ball well during crunch time, so I’m not going to make any excuses.

“I wouldn’t have called it, but I’m a little biased,” he added with a grin.

But after the four UMass free throws in a 14-second stretch, Akron’s Brett McKnight hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to two with 2:14 left.

Both teams traded missed shots and turnovers over the next two minutes, before Forbes hit one-of-two free throws with 20 seconds remaining to give UMass a three-point lead.

After the Zips wasted a few seconds off the clock after a poor inbounds pass bounced out of bounds off UMass, Wood was forced to take a difficult, step-back 3-point attempt.

Wood’s shot missed with about four seconds remaining, and Harris took the long rebound to a streaking Milligan who threw down an emphatic dunk to seal the victory.

Game notes

Gaffney’s status is uncertain for Tuesday’s matchup with Syracuse, but Ford didn’t seem too optimistic.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]