NEW YORK - The University of Massachusetts’s run to the NIT semifinals took it on a journey to outposts such as Starkville, Miss., South Orange, N.J., and Philadelphia.
When the fifth-seeded Minutemen went to New York for Tuesday’s semifinal matchup against Stanford, they had the closest thing to a home game, as a throng of students, fans, and alumni turned Madison Square Garden into Mullins Center South.
Despite the show of support, the Minutemen were left feeling a little out of place after a 74-64 loss ended their season.
“First of all, I’m proud of our team,’’ said coach Derek Kellogg, whose club finished 25-12. “I think these guys took us on a ride as a coaching staff, as a program, as a community that was special.
“These guys played their hearts out all season long, they did a great job of competing every game, and they never quit, they never gave up.
“I was proud to say that I’m the head coach at UMass of these guys at every occasion.’’
Making their fourth appearance in the NIT semifinals, and first since 2008, the Minutemen faced a formidable Pac-12 opponent in Stanford, which earned its berth by demolishing Nevada, 84-56, in the quarterfinals.
Given the way it stumbled out of the gate against the Cardinal, it appeared UMass was doomed to suffer the same fate.
Early on, the Minutemen struggled to keep up with Stanford’s rugged frontcourt, led by Josh Owens, a bruising 6-foot-8-inch, 240-pound senior forward/center who had 15 points and 12 rebounds to help the Cardinal dominate the boards, 54-45.
“Josh was the man tonight,’’ said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, who got double-digit scoring from four players, led by Anthony Brown’s 18 points. “I think he controlled the paint, blocked shots.
“He rebounded the ball well for us, and we went inside to him and he produced and he finished around the basket.’’
Owens had his way with the Minutemen, scoring 9 of Stanford’s first 16 points - his seventh, eighth, and ninth coming on a foul-inducing dunk that fueled a 17-5 run.
After Terrell Vinson’s trey pulled UMass within 16-14, the Cardinal pulled away.
Reserve guard Aaron Bright (13 points) drove hard to the basket and drew contact from Vinson (his first personal) and made both to make it 20-14.
Bright drained a trey to expand the lead to 23-14 before Chasson Randle (12 points) followed suit with a trey that made it a 12-point game, 26-14.
UMass’s sparkplug, redshirt sophomore guard Chaz Williams, stumbled his way through the first half. The Brooklyn native scored 7 of his 19 points but committed three of his four turnovers and picked up three fouls.
“Just wasn’t myself,’’ Williams said. “I had four turnovers and I think I let my team down today. I only had three assists and that’s not like me also. Just learning from this experience.’’
The Minutemen refused to let Williams’s struggles deter them, as they twice pulled within 2 (29-27, 31-29). But the Cardinal controlled a 36-33 lead at halftime.
UMass managed to tie it, 40-40, when Sean Carter scored on an inside look from Williams.
After Stanford pulled ahead, 44-40, UMass twice got within 1 (44-43 and 46-45) before taking its first lead since 6-5 when Riley stroked a huge 3-pointer that made it 50-49 with 8:02 to go.
But Stanford regained the lead, 51-50, on a Brown basket that sparked a decisive 16-5 run.
“It was a great year,’’ Williams said. “It was a great journey, playing for coach was great. Playing with these guys was great.
“A lot of people counted us out early and didn’t expect us to be here. The motto we live by at our school is, ‘Shock the world.’ ’’
Freshman Andre Hollins scored 20 points, including 5 in overtime, and Minnesota (23-14) beat top-seeded Washington, 68-67, in the second semifinal.
Washington (24-11), which trailed by 15 late in the first half, sent the game to overtime when C.J. Wilcox stole the ball and drove for the tying layup with 16.3 seconds left.
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.