|Things aren't looking up as the clock runs out on Dante Milligan's season after he fouls out late in the second half of UMass's loss. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)|
NEW YORK - Evident in the way they bounced up and down as they stood arm in arm for the national anthem, the University of Massachusetts men's players could barely contain their nervous energy. Nothing was going to distract the Minutemen. Not even swirling rumors about the imminent departure of their third-year coach, Travis Ford, to Louisiana State.
So eager was UMass for the start of last night's NIT final against Ohio State that the Minutemen barely waited for the anthem to finish before sprinting to the Buckeyes' bench to shake hands.
Although it was a good-will gesture, UMass delivered a subtle yet unmistakable message: We're coming after you.
"You know, I give UMass credit," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "They were coming at us, which is the way they play."
The Minutemen rode that early wave of momentum to a 5-point halftime lead, but were unable to sustain that energy in last night's 92-85 loss to Ohio State before a Madison Garden crowd of 8,407. Runners-up in last year's NCAA final to Florida, the Buckeyes rode the strong second-half effort of 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos, who was named Most Outstanding Player after he tallied 20 of his team-high 22 points in the second half. Ohio State earned the right to hoist the hardware at season's end in its third NIT appearance.
"I thought Ohio State played great," said Ford, "To be honest with you, it's one of the best games I've seen them play. They are a great basketball team: great players, great coach. I thought it took one of their best efforts to beat us.
"They shot the ball tremendously from the 3-point line, they made plays, they withstood some of the pressure that we caused on both ends of the court, which a lot of teams haven't been able to do, so that's a credit to Ohio State."
Ricky Harris led the way for the Minutemen (25-11) with a game-high 27 points, 21 coming from 3-point range where he converted 7 of 13 attempts, and earned a spot on the all-tournament team along with teammates Gary Forbes (16 points, 5 rebounds), and Dante Milligan (14 points, 9 rebounds).
Etienne Brower (17 points, 12 rebounds) got UMass off to a rousing start when he drove the lane and threw down an authoritative dunk over Ohio State guard Jamar Butler (19 points, 8 assists, 1 turnover), who had slapped Brower's hand away just before the opening tap. "He was mad; he thought we were playing with them," Brower said, referring to the pregame gesture.
UMass was serious about its intent to win the NIT. That much was evident with Brower's dunk, and in the way the Minutemen attacked the boards (outrebounding Ohio State, 49-37), and in the way they forced the Buckeyes to commit 11 of their 19 turnovers in the first half.
Just when it appeared UMass was getting wound up, surging to a 10-2 lead, the Buckeyes, who hit 10 of 19 from 3-point range, responded with 9 straight points, getting back-to-back treys from Matt Terwilliger and Butler for an 11-10 edge.
"I thought a couple of times we had them," Ford said, referring to that early surge and another later in the first half in which UMass took a 37-27 lead on an NBA-range trey by Forbes with 3:52 left.
"I thought a couple of times our press, our style of play was going to kick in. But I thought we gave up a few too many easy layups here and there that really allowed them to probably rest for a second to score easily."
The Buckeyes opened the second half with a 15-5 run to take a 51-46 lead on Othella Hunter's bank shot with 15:16 to go. Hunter (17 points, 9 rebounds) and Koufos proved unstoppable in the second half, combining to score 33 of Ohio State's 56 points.
When the Buckeyes built a 9-point lead, 64-55, on a pair of foul shots by Koufos with 9:33 to go, it didn't seem like an insurmountable deficit to the Minutemen, who rallied from 22 down with 14:53 to go in an 81-77 victory at Syracuse last week.
So when Harris tied it, 68-68, on back-to-back treys with 6:18 left, it appeared the Minutemen were poised to wrest the lead away. Problem was, Ohio State quickly took control, 73-70, when Koufos hit a trey and followed with a rim-bending dunk with 5:21 left.
It proved an ominous turn of events for UMass, especially since the Buckeyes were 21-0 this season when leading with five minutes left. Ohio State wound up improving that mark to 22-0 after it held off the feisty Minutemen over the last seven minutes in what Matta called "some of the fastest basketball I had ever seen." The Buckeyes did not allow UMass to get closer than 2 (77-75) on Harris's trey with 3:52 to go.
"Give them credit," Ford said. "That's how you win championships. They played well. We played well. Both teams played hard, and you know, you do have to give them credit. They had a little bit left in their tank."
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.