Wednesday, March 28, 2012

UMass Falls Short at "Home" (Recap of UMass - Stanford NIT Semifinal)

Last week I was at the DAC to see UMass face Drexel in the NIT Quarterfinals.  With about sixteen minutes left in the game and the Dragons up seventeen, it seemed pretty certain there would be a little bit of Philly flavor at Madison Square Garden for the NIT Semifinals.  But the Minutemen went into a half court trap, shot seventy percent from the field in the second half and used a 26-7 run to go on and defeat the Dragons 72-70.

Considering the other NIT final four teams were Washington, Minnesota and UMass' opponent on Tuesday night, Stanford, it kind of figured from a geographical sense that the Minutemen would have the largest contingent at the World's Most Famous Arena.  But I wasn't prepared for the sea of maroon that made up most of the Garden crowd as I entered my seat in Section 118.

It was kind of fitting that MSG was transformed into a UMass home game, given the fact their first three NIT games were all on the road.  They first knocked off Mississippi State in overtime in the first round, then "upset" number one seed Seton Hall in the second round, then finally the stunning rally at Drexel last week.   But despite having the home crowd, the Minutemen still wore the road maroon uniforms since Stanford was the higher seed.

Now in the first of three ironic twists of fate for me on the evening, our seats ended up being in the only Stanford section at the Garden Tuesday night.  When I got to my seat along with my friends Tieff and Mal, the game was tied at nine as Chaz Williams hit all three of his free throws after being fouled on a three point attempt.  However, it would be a long while before I would see UMass tie the game again.

Stanford would take the lead on a jumper by Dwight Powell, who entered the game for Andrew Zimmerman, who, I'll be honest, models his appearance after the Geico Caveman spokesman.  After Terrell Vinson hit a three pointer to cut Stanford's lead to two, 16-14, the Cardinal went on a 10-0 run, thanks to a couple of threes and a couple of turnovers by the Minutemen.  Stanford was up 26-14 and the Cardinal fans in my section were, needless to say, quite happy.

This wasn't the same UMass team that I saw rally against Drexel the week before.  Instead of getting it inside to their bigs, like the terrific Vinson, they seemed too happy to either have Chaz Williams drive the lane or chuck up three pointers.  Nearly half of their thirty two shots in the first half, fifteen were three pointers.  They only hit on four of those.

One player in particular, reserve forward Freddie Riley, was firing up shots from all over the place.  It seemed like there was never a shot that Freddie didn't like to take. The problem was he wasn't hitting many of them.  Riley was two of seven from the field in the first half and one of five from beyond the arc.  Part of me was hoping that UMass Head Coach Derek Kellogg would go out and literally pull Riley off the court.

Down 28-19, the Minutemen did go on a 10-3 spurt to cut the lead to two, 31-29 with about four minutes left. In the second ironic twist of the night, Riley accounted for five of those points, as he hit his only two shots of the first half in that spurt.  UMass would enter the half only down three 36-33.  It seemed that momentum was on the side of the "home" team.

Both teams were mirror images of each other in the first twenty minutes.  UMass and Stanford had very long players.  In particular, the Minutemen's Raphaiel Putney seemed to have a nine foot wing span and he again showed a nice touch from the outside, burying two three pointers in the first half. Neither team shot the ball well.  UMass shot thirty seven percent while Stanford shot thirty three percent.  Thus there were a ton of rebounds in the first half.  UMass had twenty five rebounds and Stanford had twenty four.

At halftime, the three of us went out into the newly renovated MSG concourse.  I have to say the Garden folks did a magnificent job.  The concourse and the hallways are much, much wider.  In fact, they are so wide, they are wider than most of the concourse at Met Life Stadium.  Yes, a 20,000 seat basketball arena has a much wider concourse than an 82,000 seat football stadium.   

The food selection is also much better now at MSG.  Yes you have the standard hot dog, hamburger and fries fare.  But there is now now a lobster and shrimp roll stand (though closed), a sausage concession that sells cheese bratwurst and Carnegie Deli, which was my choice on the evening.  A turkey sandwich, piled high with meat, a warm knish and a large lemonade was my dinner.   Yes, it was about twenty five bucks.  But a Carnegie Deli turkey sandwich was much more filling than your standard small hot dog.

The second half was mostly a nip and tuck affair.  For the first sixteen minutes of the half, Stanford's largest lead was five points.   UMass would keep it close, mainly due to Williams, who scored twelve second half points, six more than any other Minutemen player.  However, UMass would only have the lead once, when Riley hit his only field goal of the second half, a three pointer that put the Minutemen up 50-49.

But Anthony Brown, who had thirteen of his career high eighteen points in the second half, drilled a three pointer to put Stanford up 52-50.  The Cardinal would not trail the rest of the way, despite committing ten second half turnovers.   This was due to UMass breaking out their half court trap midway through the second half, the same trap that helped rally them against Drexel last week.

This time, the Minutemen couldn't capitalize on those turnovers.  Williams hit two free throws to tie the game at fifty two with 7:18 left.  But after that, Stanford went on a 15-4 run over the next five plus minutes.   Duiring that span, UMass went ice cold from the field, missing eight of their nine field goal attempts.  Williams seemed out of control, missing on all three of his attempts in that span.

Stanford was up eleven, 67-56 with less than two minutes left.  The realization then finally hit me, the third ironic twist of fate. Based on the Mid Majority's criteria,  I was about to see my last game involving a mid major this season.  Fifty eight Division I games I had seen in person this season to this point. All of them had involved at least one mid major team (again based on Mid Majority's Criteria).  The other NIT semifinal pitted two Power Six conference teams.  My fifty eight game mid major streak was about to end.  The fifty ninth and last Division I game I would see live this season would be my only non mid major game.

Williams did his best to try to keep the Minutemen and the Mid Majority's last hope in the NIT alive by scoring six of his team's last eight points.   But it wasn't enough, Stanford went on to win 74-64.   The Cardinal had another thirty rebounds in the second half as they held UMass to thirty percent shooting from the field in the last twenty minutes.

Before the game had ended, a Stanford fan in the row in front of us, turned around and said "How many New Yorkers do you think will walk in to see a Stanford -Washington Championship game on Thursday?"  We all started laughing, knowing the answer.   The NCAA and the Garden's hopeful championship game cash cow, UMass, was being shown the exit door.

Stanford showed nice balance, with four scorers in double figures, led by Brown's eighteen. Josh Owens had fifteen points, Aaron Bright had thirteen and Chasson Randle had twelve points.  Meanwhile, for UMass, only Williams with nineteen points and Riley with ten had double figure.  Williams and Riley combined to shoot ten of twenty eight from the field.  Vinson, who was terrific against Drexel, only had eight points, ten less than he had against the Dragons.

Shortly after the buzzer had sounded, there was a mass exodus from the Garden seats of the folks in maroon. As Tieff, Mal and I went out to the concourse in search of ice cream, the ultimate comfort food, there seemed to be a Minuteman fan clad in team colors every two feet.   You saw the occasional Stanford, Minnesota or even the rare Washington fan.  They were though few and far between in a sea of UMass faithful.

So most of the 7500 in attendance were leaving unhappy.  It was a shame given the terrific turnout of support for their school.  Having attended many NIT games over the years at the Garden, it was definitely one of the best fan bases I ever saw for one team.

In the end though, it didn't matter.  When you shoot not even thirty four percent from the field on the game, it's hard to win, even at "home".

And last night, UMass didn't win at "home".

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