AMHERST, Mass. -- The sellout crowd pouring into the Mullins Center was treated to some nice gifts on Friday night: 8,000 rally towels and 3,000 shirts.
But, given the fact that this was a University of Massachusetts game, the more appropriate freebie would have been boxes of Whitman's Samplers. Fans could then reach in and pull out a caramel, an almond nougat, a pecan cluster.
Of late, the Minutemen have been the college basketball equivalent of Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get.
Last week, for instance, they lost their first home game of the season and did so to last-place George Mason. At that point, the Minutemen, once 16-1 and ranked No. 12 in the country, had lost four of their past seven games and appeared to be tailspinning toward a possible flameout of a once-promising season.
Then they went on the road and pinned the first home loss of the season on George Washington.
So, who knew what to expect in last night's much-anticipated matchup with the powerful Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University? What would UMass pull out of the box, a molasses chew? A toffee chip? A cherry cordial?
Something very sweet indeed.
Riding a relentless wave of energy before a pulsing home crowd, UMass roared from behind to post an 80-75 win. It was a savagely entertaining game, college basketball at its very best: two teams with unyielding energy, clawing for every loose ball, battling for rebounds as if they were the last piece of food in town.
And when it was over, the Minutemen had improved to 21-5, 8-4 in the Atlantic 10, the long-awaited NCAA tournament now so close they could taste it. No, UMass is not home free -- there is still some winning to do -- but coach Derek Kellogg could sense the quest within the team's grasp.
"I let the guys know we have something special going on here, and take advantage of it, each and every day," said Kellogg, now in his sixth season as head coach at a school that hasn't been to the NCAA tourney since 1998. "Take advantage of the crowd being the way it was, that we have a national television audience [on ESPN2]. You have to enjoy it, because it really only happens once. You don't want to look back on your career and say, 'What if? What if I would have played a little harder that particular day or that instance or practiced a little harder?' Let's try to leave everything on the floor and see where this magical ride can lead us."
Kellogg, of course, knows this from experience. He played at UMass from 1991-95 on teams that made it to four straight NCAA tournaments (at a school that had not been to the NCAA tourney in 30 years before he arrived).
"For me, I do look back on it because I played here when we were going to the NCAA tournament quite frequently, and the gym was sold out," Kellogg said. "What's special for me is I kind of sold these guys on a vision of what UMass could become, or what it was. To see it come to fruition for me, that's special."
The vision was brought to life last night as UMass out-toughed VCU, winning the turnover battle, proving just a little fiercer on 50-50 balls, exerting its will just a little bit more. Led by their three-guard set of Chaz Williams (a game-high 20 points), Derrick Gordon (16) and Trey Davis (13), the Minutemen managed to play both fast and in control. They won despite not hitting a single 3-pointer all game.
The Rams (20-7, 8-4) are known for their renowned "Havoc" -- end-to-end pressing and trapping. UMass has adopted "P.A.I.N." as its badge of courage, standing for "pressure, agitate, interrupt, neutralize." In essence, it's two sides of the same coin, though you'd never know it listening to Williams.
"We bring P.A.I.N.," Williams insisted. "We don't bring no Havoc. That's their slogan; that's what they do. We're all about P.A.I.N over here."
The hurt was inflicted most dramatically in the closing seconds when Williams hit two colossal free throws with 17 seconds left (part of an 8-for-8 effort) to extend UMass' precarious lead to 78-75. With VCU then steaming downcourt, Williams blazed from behind to swipe the ball from Briante Weber, the head honcho of Havoc, who leads the nation in steals. Williams was fouled and sealed the game with two free throws with eight seconds remaining.
Cruz was on hand on this festive evening, addressing the sellout crowd during a timeout, imploring it to be loud, posing for seemingly hundreds of photos.
For most of the first half and the early part of the second, VCU had the best of the battle. The Rams built a nine-point lead a couple of times before intermission and went to the break up 39-34. They were led by Treveon Graham, who scored nine of his team-high 19 points in the first half.
UMass scrapped back after intermission, taking the lead 50-49 on a Williams layup with 13:47 left. From there, the game swung back and forth with unceasing intensity. Gordon's barreling drives and deft floaters -- and Davis' pull-ups and penetrating moves -- kept the UMass offense spread and attacking, opening things up for Williams. It was a three-pronged approach VCU couldn't quite handle.
Davis has been a revelation of late for UMass, and he had his finest hour at this critical moment in the season. He had four steals, two assists and, significantly, zero turnovers in 30 minutes of play. He showed coming-of-age toughness and composure down the stretch. With four minutes left, he came up with a key steal and a pull-up jumper to put UMass ahead to stay 70-68. Later, out of a timeout, he attacked the lane and pulled up for an icy 12-footer with 1:30 left for a 74-71 lead.
VCU coach Shaka Smart was duly impressed.
"He's a different player," Smart said. "He's one of the most improved players in our league. That's not the same guy we played against last year. He's a high-level A-10 player now. That's what you want."
Davis said that last week's loss to George Mason became a critical test of UMass' character.
"We definitely came together," he said. "It's a brotherhood. After that game, we talked to each other. We didn't really get down on ourselves. We became closer as a team."
Kellogg admitted he was basking a bit in the atmosphere at the Mullins Center, even before tipoff.
"To start the game, I had a little touch of it," he said. "It was unbelievable. I was enjoying the moment."
Mostly, he said, he reveled in seeing the happiness of friends and family: "I love that other people are enjoying our success For me, that's euphoria. It's just unbelievable."
But he emphasized he won't be basking for long, and he won't accept it in his players, either. "We just can't settle and rest on our laurels," he said. "It's good that we've had a good run to this point, but how far can this team go? I think we can do something special this year."