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UMass 83, Holy Cross 76

Minutemen are all the rage in the Cage

By Marty Dobrow
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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AMHERST — Last week, Derek Kellogg mapped out his strategy for creating a culture of winning at his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts. “This is new UMass,’’ said the coach, who played on four straight NCAA Tournament teams in the 1990s. “We’ve had the glory years. This is our new identity — live off the history, but let’s build our own history.’’

Yesterday, that new building involved returning to the old building — a Back to the Future script that saw UMass knock off Holy Cross, 83-76, at Curry Hicks Cage. It was the first game for UMass at the Cage since 1993, when Kellogg was the point guard.

“It was great to be back in the Cage,’’ said Kellogg. “What a treat for the players to have a really jammed environment, to have kind of an old-school game.’’

With no students on campus, many of the near-capacity crowd of 3,395 came from a generation that remembers the intense atmosphere of this quirky cauldron that housed UMass basketball for more than 60 years. A number of former players came back, including Harper Williams, Kellogg’s former teammate and the Minutemen’s first star player when they started getting good a generation ago.

Long ago, the Cage was laid out on a dirt floor. That meant games were occasionally delayed by a wayward squirrel, and officials had to wipe clean basketballs that went far out of bounds. Jack Leaman’s regionally great teams in the ’70s once held local crowds transfixed with players such as Julius Erving (known as “Julie the Jumping Jack’’) and “Slick’’ Rick Pitino.

Then came the dark days of the late ’70s and ’80s, which involved 11 straight losing seasons and an almost unfathomable 29 straight defeats at one point. In John Calipari’s first game as a head coach in 1988, the scoreboard at the Cage starting smoking, and score had to be kept by flip charts.

The team began winning in torrents, though, and ultimately outgrew the old facility. The Mullins Center opened in 1993, and for years the Minutemen filled it to its 9,493-seat capacity.

But those days passed, too, and now Kellogg has returned to try to reignite the fire. After two straight losing seasons to start his head coaching career, with Mullins crowds often under 3,000, Kellogg went retro yesterday, and the results were impressive. With the Minutemen sporting throwback uniforms from 1994-97, UMass recorded its sixth straight win to start the season — the best start since the Final Four team of 1995-96.

No one is confusing the squads, of course. That team began not just 6-0, but 26-0. Those Minutemen prided themselves on Calipari’s trademark scheduling philosophy of “Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime.’’ In their first half-dozen games (one played in Michigan, two in Maryland), UMass knocked off top-ranked Kentucky, No. 10 Wake Forest, and No. 19 Maryland.

This year’s 6-0 squad has yet to play a game outside of Western Massachusetts, and the competition has been relatively soft. At 0-5, Holy Cross fits the bill, though the young Crusaders (led by Devin Brown’s 18 points) did show lots of pluck in closing a 24-point, second-half deficit to 4 late in the game.

But make no mistake, lots of UMass teams of recent vintage would not be close to undefeated against this slate.

“I just hope they’re not getting overconfident,’’ said Kellogg. “I think we’re an OK basketball team to a good basketball team. We’re not anywhere near where we need to be or could be.’’

Yesterday, UMass was led by Anthony Gurley with 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting. The senior, who has led UMass in scoring every game this season, enjoyed playing at the Cage.

“It was a great atmosphere,’’ he said. “I had a lot of fun. It actually reminded of my high school days at Newton North.’’

UMass also got big contributions from Freddie Riley (17 points in just 17 minutes, including 5-of-9 shooting from behind the arc), Sampson Carter (14 points, five assists), and the unrelated Sean Carter (12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks).

“It was a big thing for us [playing here],’’ said Sean Carter. “I know there is a lot of history here. A lot of the community came out, which I appreciated . . . People are starting to realize that we’re putting a lot of hard work in now. We’re winning games and working hard.’’

UMass will get a better sense of itself this week, traveling to take on a solid Quinnipiac team Wednesday, then heading to TD Garden to face Boston College Saturday.