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Effort The Key For UMass

February 25, 2008 Columns No Comments

UMass’ Effort Tells the Story

by Phil Kasiecki

SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – It’s not uncommon for a team’s biggest issue to be effort, especially the consistency of it. Such is the case for UMass, a team that head coach Travis Ford summed up nicely after his team’s 98-91 win at Rhode Island on Thursday.

“When you play hard, it makes up for a lot of mistakes and it makes up for a lot of weakness you have,” said the third-year head coach. “We’re a pretty good team when we play hard.”

Indeed, when the Minutemen play hard, they produce games like their 107-100 victory at Syracuse. They also produce games like their 83-80 win at Boston College, their 95-89 win over Houston, and their two recent wins against long-time rival Rhode Island. So it’s clear that this team is capable of beating many teams.

But when they don’t play hard, they produce games like the 89-77 loss at IUPUI, or the 71-59 loss at Saint Louis, where they posted a season-low point total. As such, it’s also clear that this team is capable of losing to many teams.

Thus is the team’s current situation as regards post-season play. They are caught in a mess of teams that are in the range of 7-4 to 6-6 in Atlantic 10 play after Thursday’s win. They were swept by Saint Joseph’s and swept Rhode Island along the way. While the Minutemen have fine computer numbers, they don’t quite reflect the way the season has gone and don’t mean this team is headed for an NCAA Tournament bid if the season ended today.

On Thursday night, the Minutemen played their style of basketball. Both teams like to play fast, and in the second half they were doing just that. It got to the point where if you blinked, you probably missed a basket as the Rams shot over 59 percent and the Minutemen shot nearly 57 percent in the second stanza in combining for 109 points. UMass looked like the team that was more comfortable playing at that speed, however, as they limited their turnovers and cashed in the Rams’ 20 turnovers for 29 points.

But a real sign of how hard they played, as well as how comfortable they were in playing fast, came in how they kept attacking even on made baskets. The Minutemen didn’t just try to run on turnovers or misses, and that probably had as much to do with this win as anything.

“I’ve got to give our guys credit as far as how hard they played,” said Ford. “What I liked is we didn’t get down when they made runs at us in the first half. We gave up a high percentage the whole game, but we never let it bother us. We got it out and played our style of basketball. We got it out and ran it right back at them, didn’t care.”

Certainly, this game was important, and that helped. At times the Minutemen have appeared to play up or down to the level of their competition, and Ford has talked often about the importance of this team’s effort. One of his team’s leaders helped get the team up for this one.

“I told the guys at the beginning of the game that we’ve played in big games before,” said senior wing Gary Forbes, who had 23 points and eight rebounds. “We played at Vanderbilt, we played at Syracuse. We’ve played in big arenas and big games. We always get up for big games, and this was one of the games that could make or break us.”

One of those who has been up for the games of late is Chris Lowe, who is often a barometer for the team. Thursday night’s game saw the junior point guard go for 21 points on 9-12 shooting and hand out 10 assists. He has 33 assists in his last three games, and while his point total on Thursday equaled the combined total of his prior two, he’s not counted on to score on most nights.

“We need for him to continue to play like that,” said Ford. “When he’s playing like that, he’s one of the better point guards in the country. That’s how potent he is and how well he’s playing right now.”

In a game like this, big men wouldn’t seem to matter much. They didn’t play much of a role on Thursday night, and Ford noted some irony with his team. They have generally gone with Dante Milligan or Luke Bonner, while Tony Gaffney has occasionally assumed that position despite not being a natural center.

On Thursday, none of the big men had a big impact, with Gaffney and Milligan both fouling out. Instead, it was active forward Etienne Brower who came up big in the frontcourt with a career-high 26 points and eight rebounds, but it was two clutch plays that stood out. One was when he seemingly caught Rhode Island’s Kaheim Seawright napping and stole the ball, then went in for a layup but was fouled by Seawright. He made both free throws, then after the Minutemen got the ball from the call being an intentional foul, he hoisted a quick three-pointer that put them up 92-86.

Ford admitted that he didn’t want that shot to go up and was even yelling, “No, no, no!” on the sideline.

“That’s not necessarily the shot you want to take when time’s on your side and the score’s on your side,” said Ford. “He’s playing phenomenal basketball right now, and if anybody’s going to shoot it, I guess I’d like for it to be him.”

Gaffney, who has been reborn in the role of “energy guy”, was huge against Marist in December with five blocked shots, then had six against Duquesne and leads the team in that category. Bonner hasn’t given them much in terms of numbers, but is a presence at the defensive end as he struggles offensively. Milligan has had foul trouble in some games, fouling out ten times this season, but he played well in the two games prior to Rhode Island. He went for 15 points in the loss to Fordham, then scored 21 against Saint Louis.

“When he plays minutes for us, we play really well,” Ford said of Milligan. “We’re surviving without much of a center at all.”

When the Minutemen play like they did on Thursday, they seem better able to do that. Indeed, when they play like they did on Thursday, they seem better able to do a lot of things, including win games. Effort continues to be their main issue, and when it’s there, UMass is a tough team to beat.


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