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Christopher L. Gasper

UMass still dancing in the right direction

UMass forward Maxie Esho watched as the seconds tick away on his team’s season.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

UMass forward Maxie Esho watched as the seconds tick away on his team’s season.

RALEIGH, N.C. — After a 16-year wait to return to the NCAA Tournament, UMass had its one shining moment. It lasted 15 seconds.

That’s how long UMass led in its opening — and only — game of the tournament, against Tennessee. Derrick Gordon hit a jumper with 18:50 remaining in the first half. Tennessee’s Jordan McRae followed with a 3-pointer 15 seconds later. Your State U never led again, as its return to March Madness was short and bittersweet.

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UMass got orange-crushed by Tennessee, 86-67, Friday in a Midwest Regional game at PNC Arena.

Making the tournament for the first time since 1998 was a significant step forward for the UMass program, but the Big Dance proved to be a quick-step to extinction for the sixth-seeded Minutemen, gone faster than you can say Camby.

Every team but one is going to eventually meet the same fate in this tournament. Evaluating UMass’s 24-win season and Refuse to Lose renaissance solely on one disappointing tournament performance would be misguided. UMass lost a basketball game, but this season it regained viability, nationally and locally. That’s a win you can’t take away.

The restoration project coach Derek Kellogg has undertaken in Amherst is still a work in progress. But the framework has been put in place by seniors Chaz Williams, Sampson Carter, and Raphiael Putney.

“The last four years we worked hard for this moment. I’m just blessed to have had this opportunity to be here, wish it could have ended better,” said Putney. “We got them to a place where they can only just go further . . . I’ll be a proud UMass alum now. I’m glad what we did the last four years, me, Sampson Carter, Chaz Williams, we brought the program back.

“So, I’m satisfied. From the day I set foot on campus I wanted to bring UMass back, and I think we did that. It’s a great feeling.”

It’s going to be tough replacing three seniors, especially guard Williams, who can contort his body like a Cirque du Soleil performer to create shots and overcome his 5-foot-9-inch frame.

But Kellogg said he hoped this experience would become a springboard for the program.

“I want to thank our seniors for what they were able to accomplish at UMass and help us get back to the NCAA Tournament,” said Kellogg. “Obviously, the game didn’t turn out quite the way I would have liked. But these guys gave their heart and soul to the program. I would say it was a terrific season for our program. I thought we ran into a Tennessee team that played very physical and tough around the rim and took us out of a lot of the things we try to do.”

Tennessee had a pair of bruising low-post stockades in Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, who looked like they were right off the 1994 Knicks.

It was UMass, not Tennessee, that looked like the team that had to take a detour to Dayton, Ohio, for one of the play-in games just to reach Raleigh. Tennessee didn’t punch its ticket for PNC Arena until it defeated Iowa, 78-65, in overtime on Wednesday night in one of the detestable Dayton death matches.

The Volunteers were too long and had too much brawn (led by Stokes, who had a career-high 26 points to go along with 14 rebounds) for UMass.

The Minutemen dug their own grave in the first half, trailing by as many as 20. The Minutemen headed to their locker room down, 41-22, after McRae, who had 14 of his 21 points in the first half, buried a three with eight seconds left.

College basketball pundits who had labeled UMass as being over-seeded on Selection Sunday were crowing. UMass fans were wincing.

UMass finally had everyone’s basketball attention back home, but they were unnerved by their close-up. The Minutemen had some stage fright, missing seven of their first eight shots on their way to shooting 10 of 30 in the first half with 10 turnovers.

Carter used the word “jitters” to describe the start. Gordon, who played in the NCAA Tournament two years ago with Western Kentucky, was the only UMass player with prior tourney experience and said he could see nervousness etched on this teammates’s faces.

In the second half, UMass dialed up the pressure on its full-court press and twice cut Tennessee’s lead to 10, the last time on an ankle-bending crossover pull-up jumper by Williams (12 points, five assists) with 13:49 to go.

But UMass could never break the double-digit barrier, despite shooting 50 percent in the second half.

It turned out this wasn’t a good day to be a Coach K in Raleigh, as both Kellogg and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski were sent home.

UMass took the floor to warm up at PNC Arena at 2:31 p.m., knowing its potential path to the Sweet 16 was a lot less arduous than it had appeared two hours and 16 minutes earlier, when the first game of the day, No. 3 seed Duke vs. No. 14 seed Mercer, tipped off. The Bears of Mercer brought their slingshots, knocking off the Blue Devils in their backyard, 78-71.

Mercer is from the same conference that gave us Florida Gulf Coast, a.k.a. Dunk City, in last year’s tournament.

“It was right there,” said Gordon. “If we would have won this game, it would have been no problem for us beating Mercer at all.

“That could have been our Sweet 16 ticket punch right there.”

Instead, the guys from Knoxville knocked them out.

UMass’s last tournament win will remain an 86-62 blowout of Georgetown to reach the Final Four in 1996. In the NCAA’s sanction sanitized version of history, UMass has not officially won an NCAA Tournament game since 1995, when it defeated Tulsa, 76-51, to advance to the Elite Eight.

That’s one milestone UMass will have to continue to chase. But it won’t take 16 years to accomplish.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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