PHILADELPHIA - The road to New Orleans eluded Derek Kellogg and UMass this season. But that doesn’t mean the Minutemen aren’t going to the Final Four.
Rather than sipping gumbo and eating beignets on Bourbon Street, they’ll be munching on corned beef and pastrami and cruising Broadway, after rallying from 17 points down in the last 16 minutes to stun host Drexel, 72-70, punching their ticket to the NIT semifinals Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
And while Kellogg was thrilled with the way his 25-11 team battled back, it pained him that the victory came against his former teacher and close friend, Bruiser Flint, assistant to John Calipari when Kellogg played at UMass in the early ’90s.
“I told him I loved him,’’ said Kellogg. “The guy’s been a mentor to me. I worked with him every day in college, so this means a lot to me and my family.’’
Painful as it was, after seeing his club’s 18-game winning streak in the raucous Daskalakis Center come to an end, it meant plenty to Flint as well.
“I’m happy for him and proud of him,’’ said Flint. “His guys kept fighting. They refused to lose. There will be a lot of stuff to talk about over the summer.’’
Few would have suspected the night would end this way when Drexel (29-7) burst out of the gates to a 9-0 lead, maintained a 41-31 cushion at halftime, then extended it to 53-36 on Frantz Massenat’s 3-point play with 16:26 left. Having been in this position before, Kellogg wasn’t particularly worried.
“I knew we weren’t going to panic,’’ said Kellogg, whose club went on a 26-7 tear to take a 62-60 lead on Jesse Morgan’s 3-pointer with 7:18 left. “We’ve been in a lot of games like that. The way our style is you’re going to have some waves and runs like that. We started playing good defense and then a couple of those threes went in for us.’’
“We’ve never been a quitting team,’’ said Terrell Vinson, who led the charge, scoring 14 of his 18 points in the second half, while 5-foot-9-inch Chaz Williams led the way with 20. “Our motto since Day 1 has been, ‘Give everything you’ve got.’ ’’
Once it became tight, the Minutemen had just enough to get over the hump, as Massenat’s jumper in the lane to tie spilled out with five seconds left, with the rebound batted to midcourt as time expired.
“I thought Frantz would get the ball and drive it,’’ said Kellogg, whose club held Drexel big men Samme Givens and Dartaye Ruffin to just 2 points in the second half. “We switched it, but he got off a pretty good shot.’’
“They just wore us down,’’ said Flint. “We ran out of gas, turned it over and they capitalized on it and made big plays at the end of the game.’’
Now the Minutemen bring their act to Broadway.
“It’s an honor to play in this tournament,’’ said Williams, a New York native. “Me and the guys have worked hard all off season. Now we want to win it all.’’
“We were trying not to go 0-for-Philly this year,’’ said Kellogg, after coming up short on trips to La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, and Temple. “But going on the road against the SEC [Mississippi State], Big East [Seton Hall] and here and winning really has helped the UMass name.
“I’m glad the NIT picked us. The guys are finally maturing and learning to close out games and win on the road.
“We’re excited to go to New York City.’’