UMass outlasts MSU in NIT 1st round

By Stephen Sellner

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

The speed and tenacity of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team finally got the best of the larger, more physical Mississippi State last night. It just took two overtime periods.

UMass (23-11) won its first playoff game under coach Derek Kellogg in exhausting fashion to outlast the Bulldogs, 101-96, in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament in Starkville, Miss. The No. 5 Minutemen advance to play at No. 1 Seton Hall. The day for the game has yet to be determined, but could occur as early as Thursday or as late as Monday.

The pace of the game appeared to catch up with the Bulldogs in the second overtime frame, as UMass’ supreme conditioning allowed the team to keep its foot on the gas pedal. The Minutemen have used the same formula all season long of pressuring opponents for the length of the court on both ends of the floor, which proved to be the difference maker in the game as UMass had the clear edge in endurance over MSU.

“We worked hard all summer, spring, preseason and got in great shape and these games it shows,” said Jesse Morgan in an interview with KIX radio. “You got to give salute to our strength and conditioning coach [Richard Hogans] for preparing us for games like this.”

Javorn Farrell sealed it at the free throw line after sinking a pair from the stripe with 21 seconds remaining to push the Minutemen lead to five. Terrell Vinson set up the clincher after corralling his own miss under the basket and making the smart play to pull the ball out to the perimeter and shave precious seconds off the clock.

The Bulldogs refused to go away, however, completely transforming from their emotionless, lack-luster effort in the first half. Jalen Steele sent the game to the second overtime after drilling a deep, contested 3 to knot the game at 90 after Sean Carter made just 1-for-2 from the line to keep it a one-possession game.

Instead of packing it in, UMass dominated the final frame thanks to its relentlessness on the offensive glass, leading directly to eight second-chance points.

“When we found out we were going to another overtime, we just said, ‘Let’s just put it in another gear and just keep going at them.’ So it was a good feeling,” said Morgan. “I could’ve played all night.”

Kellogg joked that he might not have made it had that been the case.

“I know I almost had heart failure a few times, but the kids kept playing,” he said.

Carter, Morgan and Chaz Williams were the work-horses all night long, each playing over 45 minutes in the contest. Javorn Farrell also saw 38 minutes on the floor off the bench. Williams was a pest for Mississippi the entire game, leading the Minutemen with 28 points, eight boards, six assists and three steals.

On the other side, Arnett Moultrie rose to the occasion with a career-high 34 points on 12-for-23 shooting. Senior Dee Bost made the most of his final collegiate game with 20 points and 13 assists, but it wasn’t enough to get past UMass.

Early on, it appeared the Minutemen simply wanted the game more than MSU, which was left on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament. UMass started the game on an 8-0 tear, taking a 41-31 lead into the break.

But the Bulldogs came out with more passion in the second half, cutting into the deficit on a number of occasions. MSU took its first lead of the game, 63-62, at the 7:57 mark in the second half after Brian Bryant made a lay-up in transition.

UMass answered over the next 4:30 to take a 70-66 advantage, including a Morgan 3-pointer from the top of the key that put the Minutemen on top, 68-66.

The response showed just how far UMass has come in tight games, especially with the experience it gained in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

“I think they’re growing up,” said Kellogg. “They’re starting to mature some.”

With their efforts, the Minutemen earn a date with the Pirates (22-10) in the second round of the NIT.

Kellogg and the rest of the team are not ready for the season to end.

“If they could keep playing, I think they would play all the way to next season and then just roll it into the next year, which is what you want out of a basketball team,” said Kellogg.

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