AMHERST — The first game Sampson Carter played at the Mullins Center for the UMass Minutemen, a crowd of 3,482 showed up. A year later, in Raphiael Putney’s home debut, attendance was 3,784. The next year, with Chaz Williams now running the point, 2,664 were on hand for the season’s first Mullins game.
Three straight seasons, three lackluster opening Mullins crowds for Carter, Putney, and Williams, all of whom have been instrumental in the program’s resurgence, and are now fifth-year seniors. Their final game in the building where they’ve spent countless hours playing and practicing will look and sound much different.
UMass closes the book on the 2013-14 regular season with a 2 p.m. home game Sunday against No. 17 Saint Louis. The game has been sold out for weeks, the fourth time this season that an attendance of 9,493 will be announced.
The game has serious Atlantic-10 implications, with the Billikens seeking an outright title and the Minutemen playing for a bye into the quarterfinals of the upcoming conference tournament. But it also will be the last time that the only three seniors on the UMass roster play at home. They’re anticipating an emotional farewell.
“It’ll be a very emotional game for us,” Putney said. “Me, Sampson Carter, and Chaz Williams, we’ve been here and [experienced] the ups and downs of this program. But we’ve got to come out and be ready to perform for the fans.”
They’ll be facing a dangerous Saint Louis team in a tailspin. The Billikens won 19 straight games earlier this season, including their first 12 in the A-10, before consecutive losses to Duquesne, Virginia Commonwealth, and Dayton. The Duquesne and Dayton losses came at home, and have left the Billikens (25-5, 12-3) needing to win on Sunday to guarantee them a solo first-place finish (VCU, one game back, played Saturday night. Saint Joseph’s, also one game behind, plays on Sunday). Because it owns tiebreak advantages over both VCU and Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis already has secured the top seed in the conference tournament, no matter what happens.
But the Billikens come limping into the Mullins Center.
“Definitely better to get them on a losing streak. When you’re on a losing streak like that, once you go down, you’re like, ‘We’re down again,’ and most teams will give up,” said Carter, who has scored 943 points in his UMass career, and has some work to do if he’s to join Putney and Williams in the school’s 1,000-point club. “I know if we were on a three-game losing streak we’d be saying, ‘OK, enough is enough.’ It’s a tricky situation, because they’re looking at getting over this adversity and build some confidence going into the conference tournament.”
So is UMass, although the Minutemen still don’t know if they’ll get a bye into Friday’s quarterfinals, which go to the top four seeds. When UMass left Duquesne on Wednesday with a victory, it meant the Minutemen (23-6, 10-5) still could be seeded anywhere from second to seventh. A Thursday loss by Richmond eliminated the No. 7 seed as a possibility, so UMass entered the weekend with Nos. 2-6 in the mix.
UMass and George Washington were tied for fourth, but the Colonials won at Fordham on Saturday, making them 11-5 in the conference. Since UMass beat GW, a win on Sunday keeps the Minutemen either fourth, or third if St. Joseph’s loses to La Salle. A loss would drop UMass to sixth, because Dayton (10-6) beat Richmond on Saturday night. Confused?
“I’d probably flunk,” Williams said, when asked how he’d fare on a quiz with all the seeding scenarios. “I just listen to what Coach [Derek Kellogg] tells us and worry about winning games.’’
UMass has done plenty of that this season. At 23-6, the Minutemen have all but assured themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which will be the program’s first since 1998. Perhaps that will be the lasting legacy from Williams, Putney, and Carter.
“I think they’ve got it to a point it hasn’t been at in a long time, and I’m hoping that their legacy is that it continues for a few more years or however many years we can keep it going for,” Kellogg said. “They set the table, to change the culture of not only the program, but also the way it’s viewed on campus and in the community.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.