Highest attendance in nearly five years sparks UMass victory

By DailyCollegian.com Staff

Maria Uminski/Collegian

The Mullins Center was a special sight on Saturday afternoon for a variety of reasons.

Sure, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team grabbed the top spot in the Atlantic 10 after running past Saint Louis. And yes, the Minutemen extended their perfect home record to 11-0.

However, the brightest aspect of the game wasn’t what was taking place on the court, but what was occurring in the stands.

Eight thousand, three hundred and ninety-nine students, alumni and community residents alike poured into the Mullins Center for the greatly anticipated contest, marking the highest attendance the arena has seen since Feb. 24, 2007.

UMass hasn’t seen a home crowd remotely close to this all season, playing in front of an average of a little over 3,138 in its previous nine contests at the Mullins Center, mostly consisting of the Amherst community as opposed to students.

The magic was back for this one, however, and the Minutemen players and coaches loved what they saw.

“I thought the crowd and the student section being the way it was really gave our team a boost,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “They were excited when they came into the locker room to see those people out there and it actually brought back some memories for me to have 8,500 people in the gym. So hats go off to the crowd. I thought that was fantastic [of] the students for coming out and supporting the guys and I think they deserve it.”

Point guard Chaz Williams, who had the crowd captivated with his drives to the lane, had a feeling a crowd like that was possible for the game.

“I actually heard it was a pretty big buzz going around campus and, you know, a lot of guys want to see what we actually have, so it was great to see this [many] students out and these [many] fans out tonight. I think they helped us,” he said.

From the opening introductions to the final buzzer, the Minutemen faithful were on their feet riding along with the team.

The place erupted during UMass’ 18-3 run to close out the first half as the Minutemen saved arguably their best performance for the biggest stage they’ve been on all season.

Kellogg felt his team embraced the moment after previous games where the Minutemen failed to play to their potential before their peers and community, including last year’s season-opener against Rider. In that game, the team fell behind by 21 at halftime and saw the student section disappear out the door before embarking on a second half surge to come from behind to win.

“Even since I’ve been here, I think we’ve given away some opportunities with a good crowd,” said Kellogg. “This was the first time I’d say, as a program, we’ve taken advantage of that in a long time, even before I was here.”

The players certainly responded to the suddenly packed Mullins Center, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition and being “as sharp as we’ve been all year,” according to Kellogg.

Williams knows the team can’t control how many people show up game-to-game, but says they remain focused on the one thing they can control: their play.

“As a group and as a team, we want to get everybody out to come support us and we want everyone to be enthusiastic about the games,” said Williams. “But you know, it’s just all about playing basketball. Coach [Kellogg] always said there could be 10,000 students here … or there could be none. We just [have to] play basketball. We can’t dictate who’s coming and who’s not. We can just dictate how we play so that’s all we’re really worried about.”

Judging by the fans’ reaction, they won’t have to worry about how many seats they fill anymore.

Alex Mercer, a freshman at UMass and a contributor to the rowdy and thunderous student section, talked at halftime about his experience at the game.

“The atmosphere is electric today. Everybody came out; there’s a lot of people from the community, a ton of students and it’s awesome. It seems like it’s really giving the team a lift.”

Mercer also added that he plans to go to any game he can, including the Atlantic 10 tournament in Atlantic City, N.J.
Sean Ma, also a freshman at UMass, felt the same way.

“I [want to] come to as many games as I can,” said Ma. “I love this team right now.”

Even Kellogg brought a little extra to his presence on the bench. The 38-year-old was seen screaming, stomping his feet and even jumping forcefully following big plays by UMass.

“It brought back memories more so than anything of that two o’clock, four o’clock Saturday game, packed house, a top 25 team coming in the house,” said Kellogg, who played point guard for the Minutemen from 1991-1995 and, along with standout Marcus Camby, led UMass to the Elite Eight in 1995. “Even though you’re coaching, you still have kind of some competitive juices at times.”

The Minutemen certainly did their job on Saturday and have been for the entire season. It remains to be seen if the crowd will follow them.
Who knows? It could be all the way to the NCAA tournament.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.