PHILADELPHIA - On Hawk Hill, in the house Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay built, where greats such as Mike Bantom, Matt Guokas, and most recently Jameer Nelson did their thing, it’s never been easy for visiting teams.
Saint Joseph’s Hagan Arena is one of those old-fashioned basketball “pits’’. The fans are packed sardine-like, sitting so close to the enemy they can probably smell the sweat from their jerseys. That means the noise level is ear-splitting, which not only can disrupt your concentration, but apparently do all sorts of things to your shots.
That’s essentially what happened to the University of Massachusetts last night, as Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen fell to the Hawks, 73-62. Not only did it complete another unsuccessful trip to a city that has shown them anything but Brotherly Love, it also knocked them down a couple of pegs in the tight Atlantic 10 standings.
A win could have moved UMass into a three-way tie for first. Instead, UMass (18-7) dropped to 7-4 in conference play, on the fringe of getting a first-round bye in the A-10 tournament.
But that’s to be settled down the line. For now, the Minutemen will simply lick their wounds and try to regroup during a needed week off.
“They beat us pretty good on the boards and did a good job physically going after us,’’ said Kellogg, who’ll get one more chance to win in Philly when the Minutemen face Temple Feb. 29. “I give them respect for playing the way they did.
“That second half we really had about 10 open looks. We’d been converting those all year, and when you’re shooting a lot of threes and trying to force tempo, you have to make some baskets. We didn’t do that.’’
In fact, having missed 15 of their first 17 tries from beyond the arc in addition to a bunch of close-in attempts, at one point the Minutemen were shooting at a woeful 29.1 percent clip. That’s how a 32-29 lead two minutes into the second half became a 60-44 deficit over the next 15 minutes, as the Hawks (16-10, 6-5) had four players score 13 or more points - led by Carl Jones (17) - while ruling the boards, 47-37.
With C.J. Aiken, the nation’s No. 4 shot-blocker, patrolling the lane, every trip into the paint was an adventure for UMass, most of which didn’t end well.
“We tried to get Aiken away from the basket,’’ said Kellogg, as Aiken & Co. made it difficult for 5-foot-9-inch Chaz Williams, UMass’s leading scorer, to penetrate and wreak his usual havoc. “He did a good job bothering Chaz and they did a nice job packing the lane so we couldn’t get out in transition as much as we like.
“Saint Joseph’s is one of the teams in the top 50 RPI. They’re long and athletic.’’
And on a Saturday night, with the crowd really into it, the Hawks are even tougher.
“It’s very, very difficult, especially when they put us here on a Saturday night,’’ said Kellogg, who knows from firsthand experience, having played here during his Minuteman days. “They don’t particularly like UMass. It [the refurbished arena] is a little bigger than when I played, but they still get on you and the fans are right on top of you. It’s a tough place to play, especially on Saturday night.’’
Williams, who had to settle for 11 points while handing out 10 assists, concurred.
“It’s a pretty tough environment,’’ said Williams, who shot 5 for 14. “But it’s a great college basketball experience because it’s loud and the crowd is on top of you. You just have to fight through the adversity. The second half was kind of tough for us. We couldn’t buy a basket. Nothing was falling.
“It’s frustrating, but that’s college basketball.’’
Philly native Jesse Morgan led UMass with 18 points.