AMHERST — It happened. The University of Massachusetts once played in a Final Four.
No matter how much Wite-Out the deniers in the NCAA offices used to expunge the 1995-96 Minutemen from the record books, that 35-2 team made it all the way to the national semifinals. It was Marcus Camby who led UMass to its greatest glory . . . but also, of course, left the program under a tarnishing cloud once his forbidden dalliances with an agent came to light, drawing the wrath of the college hoops watchdogs.
Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center, the mood was nothing but festive while Camby’s No. 21 was unveiled in the rafters of the building he put on the map. It joins Nos. 32 (Julius Erving, Trigger Burke), 30 (Al Skinner), and 15 (Lou Roe), and all of those past Minutemen greats but Dr. J were present to honor the ’96 Naismith College Player of the Year, now with the New York Knicks in his 17th NBA season.
The halftime ceremony was the main event on this wintry afternoon, but along with a trip down memory lane, the 7,143 fans got to see a thrilling basketball game, too. While the current Minutemen couldn’t help but be overshadowed, they brought their own drama that, like the Camby era, provided some exhilarating moments but not a storybook ending.
After starting the game with the vigor you might expect from the home team on such a distinguished day, the Minutemen allowed spurts by George Washington both before and after halftime, fell behind by 15, crawled back into the game, and had a chance to tie in the final seconds. But the Colonials held their breath and walked out with a 79-76 victory.
UMass trailed by 7 points with 50 seconds to go after Lasan Kromah (14 points, six rebounds) hit a pair of free throws for GWU (8-9, 2-2 Atlantic 10). But the Minutemen cut into the lead when Chaz Williams (18 points but just 5-of-17 shooting) hit a 3-pointer with 45 seconds left and, after Bryan Bynes missed on a one-and-one, Cady Lalanne grabbed a Williams miss — his seventh rebound of the day — and made the putback to bring UMass within 74-72 with 33 seconds left.
made one of two free throws at the other end, and UMass (12-5, 2-2) pulled within a point with 14 seconds to go on a pair of foul shots by Raphiael Putney. The junior forward, a stalwart last season but an invisible man in many games this season, made his presence felt all day, starting with two blocks and a steal in the opening minutes, then culminating with high-energy play at both ends of the court as the Minutemen were surging back into the game. Putney finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, three on the offensive glass.
With the score 75-74, UMass immediately fouled Joe McDonald (16 points, 10 assists), and the point guard hit both free throws. The Minutemen came down the court with a chance to tie, and they got the ball to Freddie Riley (12 points), who is sixth all time in UMass history with 163 treys.
Riley pulled up beyond the arc at the top of the key and fired one that was partially blocked by Kromah — but there was a whistle. Riley was sent to the line for his first free throws of the game with three seconds left.
“Down 3, with a guy on the free throw line shooting three, after the way that the game played out,’’ said coach Derek Kellogg. “I would take that just about any time.’’
But Riley missed the first shot. After he swished the second, he tried to miss the third to give UMass a chance at a tip-in. But the best-laid plans . . .
“I was trying to miss,’’ said Riley. “It just went in.’’
At the most inopportune time.