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UMass Starts “New” Season With Unusual Win

February 10, 2008 Columns No Comments



UMass Starts “New Season” With Some Youthful Exuberance

by Phil Kasiecki

AMHERST, Mass. – Needing a win, UMass got one in perhaps an unusual way. The team that scored 83 points per game found a way to win that the average fan might not have figured.

“It was, surprisingly, a game we won with our defense,” said head coach Travis Ford.

UMass won despite shooting below 40 percent from the field. But they shut down Rhode Island by holding them below 34 percent, and in particular they didn’t let Will Daniels (19 points, 14 rebounds but on 7-21 shooting) and Jimmy Baron (10 points, all in the first half) get going. A lot of credit can go, in keeping with the theme, to the Minutemen’s leading scorers, Gary Forbes and Ricky Harris.

The Minutemen had lost three of four entering the game, including a road loss to Saint Louis in their most recent game. They still boasted a good NCAA Tournament profile entering the game, but their margin for error was dropping with each loss.

All the while, UMass wasn’t putting up the same scoring numbers they had been earlier in the season. In the three recent losses, none of the games reached the 80s, which is where the Minutemen are at their best as they are 10-2 when they score at least 80 points. Their field goal percentage has cooled in Atlantic 10 play as well.

Perhaps the first sign that this game would be different came right away, when UMass grabbed an early lead. Of late, they have dug themselves holes that they have tried valiantly to get out of but to no avail. This time, they took the lead early and managed to hold it for all but about eight seconds of the game, fighting off a number of runs by the Rams along the way.

It all left Ford thinking that the key with this team is simple, but not simple.

“That’s the challenge for our basketball team, it’s a challenge for any coach when you’re dealing with college athletes, to get them to play that hard every night,” said Ford. “That has been a challenge for this basketball team more than many I’ve coached.”

Some of the Minutemen’s ups and downs can be chalked up to youth, while some of it can be chalked up to the natural knowledge teams in a conference have of each other. Every season we see teams who play well in non-conference, some even picking up high-quality wins along the way, before not playing as well as that would lead one to expect in their conference. This season, that takes on new meaning in the Atlantic 10 given the strength at the top and balance near the middle of the conference, at least before you get to the teams right at the bottom.

On Thursday night, the Minutemen were at their best offensively at a few junctures of the game. Most notably, Chris Lowe was running the transition game like he’s capable of and Gary Forbes (26 points, 13 rebounds) was scoring in transition and going for it in the halfcourt set in addition to getting on the glass. Several times, Lowe (23 points, six assists) grabbed a loose ball and pushed it up the floor like he was shot out of a cannon, setting up opportunities for himself, Forbes and others like Etienne Brower and Harris.

The players said this is the beginning of a new season for them after some struggles early on in conference play. Their idea is to play like a young team often does: they’ll make mistakes, but if they play hard there will be some good results along the way along with some bad ones.

“Coach Ford has been preaching the last couple of days that he thinks we’ve been playing tentative, scared and not having fun,” said Lowe. “He said, for the rest of the season, I don’t want you to go out there and be scared, timid – just have fun. I think once he said that, everybody relaxed more, and I think that’s what’s going to help us for the rest of the season.”

Some youthful exuberance may be just what the doctor ordered, if Thursday night is any indication. The Minutemen just might get the consistency Ford is looking for, and better results may follow. They might be up and down some more, but they might also win a game or two they’re not supposed to. While they have a number of underclassmen playing key roles, a senior wants to see a good result for plenty of reasons.

“I have eight games left in the regular season in my college career,” said Forbes, who flashed a big smile on several occasions and had a great deal of energy. “I’m trying to play as hard as I can and have fun with it.”

     

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