Minutemen do it again

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Brian Tedder/Collegian

Brian Tedder/Collegian

NEW YORK – At some point, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team should consider playing well in the first half, not just the second. But so far that’s all that seems to work for the Minutemen. Trailing once again by double digits, UMass came storming back in the second half to defeat two-time defending NCAA Champion Florida, 78-66, in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden last night. After another poor shooting performance in the first half for the Minutemen, seniors – and New York natives – Dante Milligan and Gary Forbes sparked an 18-4 run that put UMass ahead, 59-51, with just over seven minutes remaining. Missed foul shots by the Gators and two key and impressive baskets by Forbes were more than enough for UMass to secure the win. “These guys showed a lot of heart and integrity and believed in each other,” UMass coach Travis Ford said after the game. “We’ve shown in our previous games that we’ve figured a way out to come back. And the reason we come back is that these guys have that never-say-die attitude.” The third straight comeback victory for the Minutemen (25-10) sets up an NIT final matchup with Ohio State – last year’s NCAA Tournament runners-up. UMass came back from big halftime deficits against both Syracuse (22 points) and Akron (12) in the previous rounds. “We came in the locker room very positive, and we knew we were going to make a run like we always do,” Forbes said. “It’s an ongoing thing with us.” “It shows how well we played as a team, and the coaching staff is bringing the winning tradition back at UMass,” junior Chris Lowe said. The Minutemen had strong contributions from all five starters – particularly in the second half – as all of them finished with at least eight points. Forbes (19) and Milligan (17) led the way, while Ricky Harris and Lowe each scored 16. But it was Forbes that had the biggest baskets. Up five points with fewer than five minutes remaining, Forbes took the shot clock down to three before launching a 3-pointer. The shot went down, giving UMass a 62-54 lead. On the very next offensive possession, Forbes pulled off the same trick – this time taking a difficult fadeaway jumper a few seconds before the shot clock ticked to zero. That shot gave the Minutemen a 10-point lead with 4 minutes, 14 seconds remaining in regulation. The Gators pulled within six points on four separate occasions, but never really made a threat due to 13 missed free throws – many of which came late. “Our missed opportunities at the free-throw line really gave them some momentum to make plays,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought their speed and quickness on the perimeter caused us some problems – going by us and getting into the lane.” In the first half the only team getting into the lane was Florida. Marreese Speights had his way inside against Milligan and others, almost registering a double-double with nine points and 11 rebounds. Other Gators were getting easy looks down-low. And when they did happen to miss, they often collected the offensive rebound and made the put-back. The Minutemen, on the other hand, settled for long looks at the basket in the first half. Of the 34 shots they took in the opening half, 14 of them were from 3-point range. Although many of those attempts were relatively uncontested, only one went down; UMass finished the half shooting 11-of-34 overall. After halftime UMass started to knock down its shots. The Minutemen did hit four 3-pointers in the second half, but they really began to push the tempo harder offensively, getting better looks at the basket. Lowe and Forbes made a concerted effort to drive the lane and they were rewarded with easy lay-ups. “We told them we needed to get the game going up and down; the game’s just not going fast enough the way we want it to go,” Ford said about what he told his team during halftime. “It’s crazy, but we were happy to be down nine points [at halftime], it could have been a lot worse.” Speights had a good second half, finishing with 16 points and 18 rebounds, but his teammates struggled. Freshman point guard Nick Calathes had 12 points and seven rebounds, but his shot was off all night (5-of-19) and he had a hard time getting his teammates involved with an uncharacteristically low three assists. Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]