UMass to play at famous Palestra against rival Saint Joseph

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Brian Tedder/ Collegian

The better the opponent, the bigger the venue ‘- the better the Massachusetts men’s basketball team seems to play.

In that case, the Minutemen should like their chances Sunday when they take on Ahmad Nivins and Saint Joseph‘s at the famed Palestra in Philadelphia, Pa.

The struggling Minutemen (9-15, 4-7 Atlantic 10) sit in a tie for 10th place in the conference, but have beaten Dayton, Temple and Kansas and almost topped then- No. 10 Xavier this season. The win over then- No. 25 Kansas came at the Sprint Center. Last year, the Minutemen won two games at the Carrier Dome and one at Madison Square Garden.

The greater the game’s magnitude, the better the results are for UMass. The Minutemen hope that trend will continue this weekend against the Hawks ‘- a team they lost to in a heartbreaker, 68-64, on Feb. 8 at the Mullins Center earlier this season.

‘They beat us at home, so it will obviously be a little tougher on the road,’ UMass coach Derek Kellogg said before Thursday’s practice. ‘[Nivins] is tough; I think he’s the best player in the conference. Luke Bonner did a good job defensively against him and everybody on the team helped out and he still got 21 points and 11 rebounds.’

Both teams enter Sunday’s game after disappointing losses on Wednesday. The Hawks (14-11, 7-4 A-10) dropped their third game in a row ‘- all decided by seven points or less ‘- against Saint Louis in a hard-fought 73-71 decision. The Minutemen dropped yet another close game in the final minutes, faltering down the stretch in a 71-59 loss to Rhode Island. UMass, which led by as many as 12 points, was tied with the Rams with under three minutes to play.

‘I think it’s as much mental with our team as physical,’ Kellogg said. ‘We’ve been pretty much in the game, ahead in the game or a bit behind in the last three minutes of every [conference game]. I’m hopeful that down in the stretch run we’re going to pull a few of these games out.’

With a 9-15 record, UMass has a lot of work to do if it wants to play in a postseason tournament. To be eligible to receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament ‘- which UMass has been to each of the last two seasons ‘- the Minutemen have to get their record to at least .500.

To do that, UMass would have to win seven of its next eight games ‘- with at least two coming in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and only five regular season games left on the schedule. UMass has lost its first game in the A-10 Tournament for six consecutive seasons.

To make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1997-98 season, the Minutemen would have to win four games to capture the A-10 title for the automatic bid.

But first UMass needs to get on the right track, having lost three of its last four games and all but two of its last eight.

‘I think right now I’m really worried about our team to make sure that we continue to play the way we’ve been playing for 35-37 minutes,’ Kellogg said, referring to his team’s last-minute struggles. ‘I think the difference comes now at the end of the game to make sure we get good shots and lock up defensively.’

The Minutemen did a solid job defensively in this year’s previous meeting, holding the Hawks to under 70 points. But UMass had trouble on offense, shooting 38.1 percent from the floor and 33 percent (9-for-27) from 3-point range. Anthony Gurley and Ricky Harris each had 18 as the only Minutemen in double figures.

Point guard Chris Lowe, who needs just one more assist to set the all-time school record with 634, had nine assists against the Hawks, but shot just 3-for-13 from the field.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]