Minutemen shine amid Mullins Center euphoria

By Mark Chiarelli

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Cade Balisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

There will be plenty more games and, presumably, plenty more wins to come at the Mullins Center for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team. But there won’t be many more which play out like Friday’s 80-75 victory over Virginia Commonwealth.

Oh, did the 9,493 which comprised the 62nd sellout in Mullins Center history witness something special.

The Minutemen delivered on a week’s worth of hype and anticipation to a crowd frothing at the mouth, exploding on nearly every made basket, especially in the second half. Students stewed anxiously in their seats for an hour and a half, filling the student section well in advance of tip off. The game itself functioned at an incredibly high speed, as both teams transitioned up and down the floor enough times to wear grooves into the Mullins Center hardwood.

It was, for at least one night, the quintessential college basketball environment and the quintessential college basketball game, as both teams traded blows for 40 minutes. And VCU coach Shaka Smart was quick to acknowledge it.

“It’s a first class basketball environment,” Smart said of the Mullins Center. “It says a lot about the job that coach (Derek) Kellogg and his staff and his players have done to build this program.”

The Minutemen have patiently bided their time, waiting for the opportunity to deliver a signature win against a high-level opponent on their own court. A season ago, UMass hosted then-Atlantic 10 Conference member Butler under similar pretenses and hype, but lost 73-62. The defeat suffocated the Minutemen’s NCAA Tournament chances, as they came up just one crucial win short of dancing a season ago.

Perhaps it makes it all the more fitting that UMass – which is on a much less turbulent path to postseason play this season – knocked off the conference’s most powerful broker in VCU.

“I do let the guys know that we have something special going on here and take advantage of it each and every day,” Kellogg said. “Take advantage of the crowd being the way it was, that we have a national television audience and you have to enjoy it because it really only happens once.”

Kellogg’s words resonate profoundly, as he is the architect of the program. He’s had to essentially start from scratch and has come up short in the past two seasons. In his sixth season molding the Minutemen, Kellogg is finally seeing the fruits of his own labor.

He also played at UMass when sold out arenas against skilled opponents were abundant, playing point guard from 1991-95. He participated in postseason play and envisioned his alma mater becoming a basketball haven once more.

“For me, I do look back on it because I played here when we were going to the NCAA Tournament quite frequently and the gym was sold out,” Kellogg said. “What’s special for me is I sold these guys on a vision of what UMass could become, or what it was. To see it come to fruition for me, that’s special.”

What came to fruition on Friday night was a team which outlasted the Rams in an incredibly competitive second half. The lead never stretched past five points for either club. VCU led 67-62 with seven minutes, six seconds left. It wasn’t until Trey Davis hit a contorted, falling away floater with 1:30 left that the game finally appeared in hand, as UMass went up 74-71. The back and forth action was rich in drama and high on entertainment value.

As the crowd hung on every play and the Mullins Center hummed and vibrated in the waning moments of the victory, the noise crashed down in a crescendo. Kellogg paced the sideline right up to the final whistle, but found time to appreciate the value.
“To start the game, I had a little touch of it because it was just unbelievable,” Kellogg said.

“There was a time there where I was enjoying the moment. But the strange thing is I like when we have night’s like this and it goes well, I just like to go sit back and chill out by myself and love that other people are enjoying our success. To me, to see all my college friends, my wife’s college friends and family, all the people that are back around the program enjoying this, for me, that’s euphoria. It’s unbelievable.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli