- Marty Dobrow, ESPNBoston.com
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AMHERST, Mass. -- Call it the Court of Dreams.
For Derek Kellogg, that has always been the Mullins Center. During his playing days for NCAA tournament teams at the University of Massachusetts in the early and mid-1990s, Kellogg knew Mullins to be one rocking place. Game after game the arena sold out. The crowd was always 9,493.
But as sixth-year head coach at his alma mater, Kellogg has come to know more than his fair share of empty seats. The Minutemen, who have not been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, routinely were playing to an arena that seldom filled to half its capacity. The atmosphere was often listless.
Kellogg clung faithfully to a belief: If you rebuild it, they will come back.
Saturday night was sweet vindication. Playing before their first full house at the Mullins Center in more than seven years, the 23rd-ranked Minutemen gritted and willed their way to a 69-67 overtime victory over Providence on a putback basket by Derrick Gordon with 1.1 seconds remaining.
"I apologize for the delay," Kellogg said, explaining to the media his team's late arrival at the postgame press conference. "There were a lot of kids in the back getting autographs from the players, which was a nice sight. It hasn't been that way in a little while."
Kellogg credited the juiced-up crowd for putting his team over the top, especially after it lost senior leader Chaz Williams, who fouled out with 1 minute, 36 seconds remaining in regulation.
"That was great," Kellogg said. "For the fans to come out and really support this team today is what helped us win the game."
It was not an artistic effort, but even the great UMass teams of the '90s seldom got it done with aesthetics. Despite 39.1 percent shooting from the floor and a grimacing 9-of-18 effort from the free throw line, the Minutemen prevailed thanks to rebounding aggressiveness (a 45-36 edge) and pressure defense. It was just enough against a resurgent Friars team that fell to 10-3.
Providence closed regulation on a 9-0 run, tying the game on a great knifing layup by Bryce Cotton (a game-high 24 points while playing all 45 minutes). In overtime, the Friars appeared to have the edge with Williams relegated to cheerleading status on the bench. Williams had shaken off a scoreless first half to post another double-double with 10 points and 10 assists.
UMass led for most of the feisty overtime period, but Cotton fought free to drill a 3-pointer with 36 seconds left to tie the game at 67.
The 11-1 Minutemen looked a bit out of sorts on the ensuing possession, with Trey Davis dribbling the ball way out on the perimeter near the UMass bench. With 3 seconds left he sent up a leaning jump shot from just inside the arc that caromed hard off the front rim. Gordon extended his right arm out toward the foul line to corral the rebound and scooped it back up and in with just over a second left.
"It just happened to bounce my way," said Gordon.
For Providence, the loss was the worst kind of déjà vu. The Minutemen beat them in similar fashion a year ago on a tip-in just before the buzzer by Terrell Vinson.
"That's two years in a row, man," said Providence coach Ed Cooley. "Merry Christmas."
UMass had five players score in double figures, led by Cady Lalanne with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Sampson Carter also had a double-double with 12 points and 12 boards. Trey Davis had 12 points. Maxie Esho was a major force for UMass off the bench with 11 points, including a crucial tip-in late in overtime.
The Friars came into the game as the national leader in free throw shooting, but hit only 5 of 8 in overtime.
"I was shocked that we missed free throws in overtime," said Cooley, sounding like he had just heard about gambling in Casablanca. "Shocked."
Cooley credited UMass for its "grittiness" in persevering after Williams went out.
"The little guy does everything for them," he said. "He's a load. You're going to have to have a man and a half on him all the time. He's a great player."
Williams, who went careening back to the bench after getting called for the fifth foul, maintained that he still believed UMass would prevail.
"It was hard because I wasn't out there and couldn't contribute on the floor," he said. "But it felt good. ... I have the same amount of confidence in my teammates as I do myself."
The game featured two teams with some interesting history. For UMass fans of a certain age, basketball became a different animal against Providence 44 years ago in 1969, a year in which man first walked on the moon and the Miracle Mets somehow won the World Series. That year the season opener featured a powerful Providence team coming to Amherst to play UMass. The Redmen -- as UMass was then known -- won thanks to a sophomore playing his very first varsity game. Julius Erving made quite the impression with 27 points and 28 rebounds. There was a sense then that winter nights in Amherst could become magical on the basketball court.
Both schools have some Final Four history. Providence made it twice, most recently in 1986-87 under a precocious coach who played his college ball at UMass: Rick Pitino. UMass made it in 1995-96 under John Calipari.
As fate would have it, Calipari and Pitino -- coaches of the past two national championship teams at Kentucky and Louisville, respectively -- were also in action Saturday. Kentucky triumphed just moments before Calipari's protégé got set for one of his biggest games at UMass.
Both the Minutemen and the Friars have been off the national stage for a while: 16 years away from the NCAA tourney for UMass, 10 for Providence. Both now seem to be on the upswing.
Kellogg admitted he was nervous when he heard about the crowd.
"I had some anxiety," he said. "I guess I was a little short around the house. I was excited. When I heard there was going to be a sellout, I wanted to come out and perform for the fans and the people of Western Massachusetts."
To lose in front of that crowd would have been a colossal disappointment.
"You wouldn't have seen me for about a week," Kellogg joked.
Kellogg knows that that the 2013-14 season will not be judged by the odd-numbered year. There is still work to do, of course, an entire Atlantic 10 season to play. But the Minutemen rang out the old with a rousing win and look forward to the new with their eyes on a certain Sunday in March.
That will be the measure. This year's team has all of its eggs and one deep-grooved Spalding in that one basket. For the past 15 years, that Sunday has been filled with a lot of rejection, dejection and occasional introspection about what happened to great basketball at UMass. This year the hope is that Selection Sunday will be a moment of deliverance.
158dJack McCluskey | Special to ESPNBoston.com
174dBrendan C. Hall
175dJack McCluskey | Special to ESPNBoston.com