AMHERST - This is what brought Derek Kellogg home. At least the promise of it . . . or maybe just the hope.
The Springfield native was used to big, boisterous crowds when he was a point guard on UMass teams that won Atlantic 10 Conference championships in all four of his seasons in the mid-1990s and made an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. But those glory days are in the deep past. When Kellogg arrived four years ago to take over his alma mater’s program, he brought his rebuilding tools to a quiet Mullins Center.
So it was gratifying for the coach to experience what happened after Chaz Williams hit a pair of free throws with 4:21 left to put the Minutemen in the lead for good in what turned out to be a 92-83 victory over Duquesne in a first-round Atlantic 10 tournament game before 4,061 Tuesday night. They were just free throws, after all, not exhilarating dunks or 3-pointers. But no sooner had the ball fallen through the net - for the Minutemen’s seventh straight point after trailing, 78-73 - when the fans rose to their feet as one and transformed the building into a noise hazard.
For the visiting team, but not the home five.
UMass (21-10) responded to the clamor by making noise with its play - in perimeter defense, on the defensive boards, and on the free throw line - to seal the deal and set up a quarterfinal matchup against No. 1 seed Temple Friday at noon in Atlantic City. The eighth-seeded Minutemen took the Owls to overtime last Wednesday in Philadelphia before losing, 90-88.
Kellogg wishes he could bring Tuesday night’s crowd with him to the Jersey Shore. The Mullins Center, after all, was as he remembered it - and how he imagined it could be.
“My imagination runs wild for my vision for the crowd and the program,’’ he said. “Tonight was a vision for what a championship crowd is supposed to be like. The way they kind of took the game over with the players in the last four minutes kind of holds a special place for me, honestly.’’
Ah, yes, the coach didn’t forget to mention the players. Leading the way, as usual, was Williams, who scored 16 of his game-high 21 points in the second half. He’s tough to guard anywhere on the court, but he did much of his damage from a place where no one is even allowed to try: the free throw line, where he hit 13 of 14. As a team, Duquesne went to the line only 11 times.
The ninth-seeded Dukes (16-15), who beat UMass by 11 in January in Pittsburgh (they forced 29 turnovers that evening but only 11 last night), had five players in double figures, led by Eric Evans and Jerry Jones with 16 apiece.
A pair of Minutemen contributed 20 points apiece: Raphiael Putney, who had a hot first half, and Javorn Farrell, who had his best game of the season, also contributing 7 rebounds and a team-leading 9 assists. “I thought a couple of the rebounds at the end were huge plays,’’ said Kellogg.
One, in particular, seemed to deflate Duquesne. The Dukes trailed by 3 and had the ball with just under a minute and a half left, missed a shot and crashed the boards. But Farrell went up strong amid a crowd of blue uniforms, came away with the ball, and was fouled by B.J. Monteiro. It was the fifth foul for the Duquesne senior, and he didn’t react well, drawing a technical. However, a green water bottle came bounding onto the court from Derek Kellogg’s best friends, the UMass students, and the Minutemen were assessed a technical as well.
UMass hit 1 of 2 and Duquesne sank both to make it 85-83, but Farrell then stepped to the line and hit two to make it a 4-point game. That was the cushion the Minutemen needed, as Duquesne never scored again.
Which allowed Kellogg to forgive his home crowd for handing the visitors a couple of points. “That was a big-time ending,’’ said the coach, “and it was a big-time college basketball atmosphere.’’