AMHERST — In Sampson Carter’s first game at the Mullins Center in 2009, the University of Massachusetts played in front of 3,482 fans in a win over Rider.
Raphiael Putney’s first game there a year later had just 3,784 in the stands for a loss to Cornell, while only 2,664 fans can say they saw Chaz Williams lead the Minutemen past Northeastern in his 2011 Mullins debut.
At Sunday’s 2 p.m. game against Saint Louis, the trio’s final game at Mullins, there will be almost as many fans in the sold-out building (capacity 9,493) as there were in their debuts combined (9,930).
Because of transferring (Williams), injury (Carter) and redshirt (Putney), the three seniors have spent five years in college and their play has been a huge part of the increase in win totals and attendance during their careers.
“In my first year here we had to beg people to come to games,” Williams said. “Now it’s a true blessing. Guys are calling me for extra tickets now.”
Carter smiled as he talked about the program’s improvement during his career.
“It’s such a good feeling. We’ve been through so much as a team, a lot of ups and downs, trials and tribulations,” he said. “It’s better to know we went through it for a reason. I’ve been through a lot, but I’m happy I’ve been through it. Now I’m seeing the light. To bring UMass back and play so many sold-out games is a great feeling.”
Putney said one of the team’s goals when he arrived was to play well enough to make the Mullins Center a tough ticket again.
“We got it back the way it was back in the day 15 years ago with sold-out crowds,” Putney said. “We were looking forward to that when we joined this program. We’ve worked hard and the hard work is paying off for us.”
Included in Sunday’s attendance for the first time will be Latisha Putney, Raphiael’s mother, along with his father Richard and brother Ravel. Raphiael Putney, who’ll be remembered for his highlight-film dunking, hoped to get one in front of his family.
“I’m hoping to get a lot more dunks, especially on my senior night. It’s going to be a sold-out crowd,” Putney said. “It would be a great feeling to do it with my family up here. I’m very happy that they’re here. All they know is from what they see on TV or what I tell them on the phone. Having them here, they’ll get to feel what I feel when I’m playing.”
The final home game will be different than in the recent past. The Minutemen are confident that the NCAA tournament is in their future so there are more meaningful games upcoming. Plus, in each of the past two years, UMass hosted a National Invitation Tournament game so senior day wasn’t actually the last home game.
Kellogg said he’ll be more sentimental about the seniors at then end of the season than he is now.
“I’m still planning on seeing those guys for a while,” Kellogg said. “I’ll get more emotional at the end of the year when I know they’re gone. We have some work to do. I don’t want to get emotional, but those guys have meant a lot to me personally and my family and the program. They all came here on blind faith. In the end it worked out great for everybody.”
If the Minutemen want to leave senior day happy they’ll need to upset the highest ranked visiting opponent since No. 7 Connecticut in 2004.
The No. 17 Billikens arrive in Amherst trying to end a late-season slide. After starting A-10 play 12-0, they’ve lost three straight to Duquesne, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton.
Senior big man Dwayne Evans leads SLU in scoring (14.0 points per game) and rebounding (6.5 per game), while A-10 player of the year favorite Jordair Jett is second in points (13.7) and first in assists (4.7).
As usual the Billikens’ defense (60.9 ppg) is the best in the conference, although they’ve allowed 70.0 per game in the three losses. Opponents are shooting 39.5 percent from the floor and 27.6 percent from 3-point range. Both marks lead the conference.
A win would clinch the Minutemen a top four finish and a bye in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
NOTES — UMass senior managers Dustin Dobbs and Zach Tucker will also be honored during senior night ceremonies.
The UMass hoop band will be wearing T-shirts promoting the Krystle Campbell Scholarship Fund, honoring the former UMass Boston student who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Rally towels will be distributed to the first 9,000 fans.