UMass clinches playoff berth on Senior Night

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Derek Kellogg never missed qualifying for an Atlantic 10 Tournament as a player, so he wasn’t about to become the first coach in team history to have that distinction.

But the first-year coach of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team certainly had to sweat it out.

A 13-0 run by the Minutemen down the stretch lifted UMass over George Washington, 77-62, Wednesday night at the Mullins Center to finally clinch a spot in Atlantic City, N.J.., for the conference tournament.

It wasn’t tough to sense the enormous relief of the UMass players after the game in an interesting sequence at the post-game press conference.

‘We were not leaving tonight without a win ‘- there was no way,’ began senior Luke Bonner.

‘We probably would have all been ejected if something went wrong,’ interrupted Chris Lowe.

Then Tony Gaffney took it to the extreme.

‘We would have had to bring in some ambulances for us, because I wasn’t leaving alive if we didn’t win,’ Gaffney said.

There was no need for that, as Gaffney and the Minutemen live to see another day until at least Wednesday, March 11, when the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament tips off. If UMass beats Rhode Island in the regular-season finale on Saturday, it would clinch the 10th seed. With a loss, the Minutemen would be No. 11.

Having lost eight of their last 11 games, it wasn’t a lock for UMass to even make the tournament. The Minutemen (11-17, 6-9 A-10) entered senior night with no guarantee of a tournament berth ‘- needing a win against either GW or URI.

That didn’t look like a sure thing as UMass clung to a 5-point lead with 6 minutes, 25 seconds remaining ‘- but monster defensive efforts from seniors Gaffney and Bonner sparked the Minutemen to a 13-0 run on the offensive end to seal the victory and clinch their spot.

‘I thought [the seniors] were the deciding factor in the second half and they did a lot of things that seniors are supposed to do in the second half of an important game,’ Kellogg said. ‘I was over there battling with the guys and my voice is gone ‘hellip; it was the way senior night was supposed to be.’

The seniors showed it over the final 6:25. Gaffney was blocking shots, Bonner was taking charges and grabbing offensive rebounds and Lowe was controlling the offense in the 13-0 run spanning 5:34 of the clock.

The Colonials had no answer for the shot-blocking duo of Gaffney and Bonner, missing 12 consecutive shots in that span.

‘When you’re players are doing what they do well, that means they’re playing their roles. And when they do that good things usually happen,’ Kellogg said. ‘Chris is very fast and good in the open floor, Tony is kind of a jack-of-all-trades guy and Luke does a great job of anchoring the defense, getting some offensive rebounds and knocking down some 3-point shots.’

But it wasn’t just the seniors. Ricky Harris had a team-high 19 points, while Anthony Gurley (12) and David Gibbs (eight) hit key shots and free-throws down the stretch. Gurley and Harris had 10 consecutive points for the Minutemen during that key run.

The Colonials (10-17, 4-11 A-10) entered the game having won three of their last four to put themselves in a position to sneak into the tournament. Despite the loss, GW can still get in with a win over Temple and a Charlotte victory over St. Bonaventure on Saturday.

Bonner was just glad that the Minutemen clinched and now don’t have to worry about any scenarios.

‘That was one of the first games in a while where something significant was on the line and we didn’t let that get to us,’ he said. ‘Guys came out and had great attitudes even though we were playing hard in the first half and found ourselves down at halftime. We didn’t let that shake us.’

UMass trailed 36-33 entering halftime. Harris hit two early 3-pointers in the second half to regain the lead for the Minutemen. The Colonials tied the score at 45, but Gibbs hit two of his own in a 58-second span to twice give UMass back the lead ‘- the second of which gave the Minutemen the lead for good.

Lowe finished with 14 points and eight assists, while Gaffney had a double-double with 11 points and 1
0 rebounds. He also had three blocks and five steals. Senior Rob Diggs led the Colonials with 22 points and nine rebounds.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]