AMHERST — The fresh blanket of snow was enticing. Walking to the Mullins Center on a crisp afternoon along pathways dusted in white, the thought occurred that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to enjoy a little extra meandering on a University of Massachusetts campus that looked as fresh as a lily thanks to the season’s first snowfall.
So what if you’re a little late for the basketball game? All three of the Minutemen’s victories this season had come via buzzer-beaters, which seemed to suggest that what happens in the first 39 minutes 55 seconds of a UMass game doesn’t much matter.
Well, anyone who thought that way on Saturday would have been left out in the cold. By the time the fashionably late walked in the building, the place was quiet and mostly empty, with the University of Miami putting the icing on an anticlimactic 75-62 victory.
But last-minute looks can be deceiving. Those among the crowd of 7,004 who were there from the start saw a game that was eventful if not artful. UMass (3-3) led for much of the first half and briefly in the second, sprinkling in some crowd-rousing moments throughout. However, the Minutemen never found a comfort zone on their home court thanks to the immense presence of the Hurricanes’ Reggie Johnson.
When we say “immense presence,” we’re not simply speaking metaphorically about the senior center’s game-leading numbers (19 points, 13 rebounds, 6 blocks). we’re referring to his actual immensity. Miami’s big man is listed at 6 feet 10 inches, 292 pounds, but he must have been on the Atkins diet when he weighed in for the media guide. Since then, the guy appears to have eaten considerable carbs.
Johnson is no stationary man mountain, though. He moved around the lane just enough to make life miserably unproductive for any UMass player who dared take the ball inside, especially in the first half. The stat sheet credited Johnson with five blocked shots before intermission, and that doesn’t take into account the shots altered, thought better of, or flung from as far from Johnson as possible. That is to say, from outside the 3-point line.
UMass is a trey-loving team, of course, averaging 24.8 tries a game. But in Saturday’s first half alone, Derek Kellogg’s squad shot 20 times from beyond the arc. That didn’t alarm the coach, who gives his players the freedom to fire away. What troubled Kellogg: The misfiring Minutemen made just three.
“I’ve got to make a determination if we’re shooting too many threes or if we’re not shooting enough in practice or guys are not shooting enough on their own,” said the coach. “When you have the green light, and the coach has confidence in you shooting the ball, the guys have to put the ball in the basket.”
Despite being the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, the Minutemen remained ahead of the posse from Miami (5-1) for much of the opening 20 minutes, largely on the strength of persistent work on the offensive boards (eight rebounds before halftime) and an unyielding pressure defense that made the 33⅓ -r.p.m. Miami offense spin out of control at times. But the Hurricanes scored the final 9 points of the half to take a 30-25 lead into the locker room.
Miami led for most of the rest of the way, although UMass stayed on the Hurricanes’ heels and actually jumped ahead, 52-51, on a Jesse Morgan drive with 8:28 left. However, Miami quickly grabbed back the lead and built on it, the backbreaking play being a Johnson drive with 6:02 left that the crowd expected to be whistled as a bulldozing charge. But a block was the call as the shot fell, the big guy hit the free throw to make it 60-54, and the fans were quiet from then on.
Terrell Vinson led UMass with 14 points and 11 rebounds, while Chaz Williams had 11 points and 10 assists for the Minutemen, who next play Tuesday at Northeastern.
“I thought the guys played hard, but we’ve got to play a little better basketball, especially when you’re playing high-level competition,” Kellogg said, referring to a Miami team that was coming off an upset of No. 13 Michigan State. “Once again, in the second half, we had an opportunity in front of us.”