Minutemen to square off with Gators in NIT semifinals

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Click here to hear Eli Rosenswaike and Michael King discuss the upcoming match up with the Gators.

If Massachusetts trails Florida by 15 points at halftime tonight, it will have the Gators right where it wants them.

Under any other scenario, that would seem ridiculous, but the past few games have been that improbable for UMass. The Minutemen hope to continue their impressive run in the NIT tonight at Madison Square Garden with a semifinal meeting against Florida.

UMass (24-10) remains alive in the NIT after two incredible late-game comebacks, highlighted by last week’s epic 22-point come-from-behind victory over Syracuse in the quarterfinals.

The Minutemen made up the 22-point difference in the last 14-plus minutes, escaping the Carrier Dome (for a second time this season) with the 81-77 win. UMass defeated Akron, 68-63, in the previous round, overcoming a 12-point deficit with just over eight minutes remaining.

“We’ve come back a lot this year. But what we’ve done these past two games; it leans on the shoulders of our seniors,” UMass coach Travis Ford said. “They don’t want their season to end and I think they’re the backbone of our basketball team right now.”

For senior captains Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower and Dante Milligan, not making the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season was a bitter disappointment. But the trio of New York natives now get to end their careers in the very state it all started – and at one of the most famous sporting venues in the world.

How long this trip lasts will depend a lot on how well they play – along with junior point guard Chris Lowe and sophomore guard Ricky Harris – against a young, but supremely talented Florida team. Virtually everybody from the two-time defending champions are graduated or in the NBA, but this current group has its stars as well.

“Their team is playing with a great sense of urgency,” Ford said. “They are a very talented basketball team, very similar to the team we just played [in Syracuse]. They are probably even more talented than Syracuse is as far as guys who can do a lot of different things.”

Two of those players are freshman point guard Nick Calathes and sophomore big-man Marreese Speights. Calathes has been sensational for the Gators running the point, contributing to the offense in virtually every way possible. Somehow, his stellar production as a first-year player (15.4 points per game, 6.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds) has been lost in all the talk and hoopla of this year’s national freshman class.

“Calathes is extremely advanced; maybe the best point guard we’ve played against this year, as far as what he does for his basketball team,” Ford said. “He can score, maybe the best passer we’ve played against, and he’s doing all this at 6-foot-6.”

That’s high praise from Ford, as the Minutemen have played against some strong point guards this season, including Drew Lavender (Xavier), Tyrese Rice (Boston College), Jonny Flynn (Syracuse) and Brian Roberts (Dayton).

Like Calathes, Speights is already high on the NBA radar at such a young stage in his career. The 6-foot-10 sophomore ranks just behind Calathes for the team lead in scoring at 14.5 points per game and his average of 7.8 rebounds is a team-best.

Speights has been a force in the low-post all season, with nine double-doubles and over two blocks per game. If UMass forward Tony Gaffney (injured knee, missed the game against Syracuse) is unable to play, the Minutemen may have their hands full in the paint. But Gaffney appears ready to suit up and make an impact for his team.

Notes

The winner of tonight’s game advances to the NIT Championship game, which will be played Thursday night at MSG. That game will air on ESPN at 7 p.m.