AMHERST — How does one get revved up after being let down?
Don’t ask the University of Massachusetts, which after having its bubble burst by the NCAA Tournament selection committee fizzled in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, falling to Stony Brook, 71-58, before 2,173 Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.
“I’m not really one to make excuses,” said coach Derek Kellogg, who one night earlier saw his mentor, John Calipari, also get bumped from the NIT when defending national champion Kentucky was upset. “You could probably throw a hundred things in there, of why this didn’t happen, why that didn’t happen. They beat us. It could be that somebody cried because we didn’t make the [NCAA] selection show. It could be that we drove the bus back from Brooklyn [after losing in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament]. I don’t know. I do know that they played better than we did today.”
It was indeed a somnolent finale for the Minutemen (21-12) and their fans. With the university on spring break, the student section was all but empty. And those who did show up had not a whole lot to cheer, as the home team, which was seeded second in its bracket, went long stretches with little production, a byproduct of scattered focus.
Not coincidentally, the home team also went long stretches without its leader, point guard Chaz Williams, who left the court with 14:08 remaining in the game holding his right shoulder and wincing after trying to fight through a screen. He did not return, spending the rest of the game on the bench holding ice on what a school official described as a sprain. The UMass scoring leader (15.9 ppg coming in) finished with a season-low 2 points in 16 minutes.
The Minutemen struggled with those same fundamentals even with Williams on the court. He rode the pine for a significant portion of the first half as well, after picking up his second personal foul 5:44 into the game. And UMass initially moved in a positive direction with their leader on the sideline, turning a 4-point deficit into a 4-point lead over the next seven minutes. But eventually it all fell apart. Freddie Riley’s layup with 7:05 left, which gave UMass a 25-21 lead, represented the team’s last points before halftime.
Williams returned with 4:46 left and the Minutemen trailing only by 3. But the 5-foot-9-inch junior immediately turned into the little engine that couldn’t. The next five UMass possessions: Williams had the ball stolen, leading to a breakaway layup; he missed a bad 3-pointer; he threw away a pass; he dribbled the ball off his leg and out of bounds; and he threw another one away. The nation’s No. 4 assist man would end this game with nearly as many turnovers (five) as assists (six).
Stony Brook ran off 17 straight points before intermission to take a 13-point lead into the locker room.
The Seawolves (25-7) still had work to do, however, in order to record the program’s first win in a national tournament and the first America East win in the NIT since 1987. UMass came out of the locker room firing, getting a pair of 3-pointers by Riley (16 points) and one by Terrell Vinson (11 points) to pull within 6 with the half not 3 minutes old. The team’s only two seniors clearly weren’t ready to end their careers.
But Stony Brook, which moves on to face Iowa on Friday, ended it for them. Anthony Jackson and Dave Coley (20 points apiece) hit key shots every time UMass closed the distance.