Fordham's Chris Whitehead, left, dribble around Massachusetts' Maxie Esho, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Amherst, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
AMHERST — When Fordham coach Tom Pecora was hired from Hofstra in 2010, he was hoping two of his former players — Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams — would follow him from Long Island to the Bronx, N.Y.
He doesn’t know if they would have, because they never had the chance. Hofstra refused to give the players releases to any New York City area schools.
Williams has been torching him ever since and on Sunday, Pecora was reminded again what might have been. Williams’ 18 points and eight assists were close to the 21.5 points and 7.5 assists per game he’d averaged in two previous games against the Rams. But Sunday’s numbers could have climbed higher. Williams spent most of the second half cheering for his younger teammates with the score well out of hand.
But Williams’ 27 minutes of action were enough to impress his former coach.
“He’s just developed tremendously,” Pecora said. “He has the ability to involve everyone and be a surgeon, and the ability to understand time and score and the flow of the game and share the ball and do all the things great college point guards do.”
Williams was a 5-foot-5, 110-pound high school sophomore when Pecora first saw him.
“I compared him to (former NBA guard) Speedy Claxton, who played for me at Hofstra. His competitive nature and his leadership skills were off the charts, even as a little 10th-grader,” Pecora said. “He competed on every play. You couldn’t tell him there was anything he couldn’t do. I knew even if he didn’t grow an inch, he’d be a Mugsy Bogues type player. He was committed to winning and committed to competing. That’s the most important skill there is. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Williams said he and Kanacevic, who transferred to Saint Joseph’s, talk often about what they could have been together. Williams said he’s glad to be where he is.
“Everything happened for a reason,” he said. “God has a plan for me. I guess this is my plan.”
BARBEE VISITS — Former Minuteman Tony Barbee, who was inducted into UMass’ athletic hall of fame Sunday night, was at the game. Barbee is now the coach at Auburn and flew in after his team’s loss to Arkansas Saturday night.
Barbee played with UMass coach Derek Kellogg and coached with him under John Calipari at Memphis.
“It’s always great to come back,” Barbee said. “UMass will always be my home. I’m a proud alum. It’s even more satisfying to see Derek, who is one of my best friends, doing what he’s doing with the basketball program. We talk almost every day. I knew he’d get UMass here because he’s a fantastic coach. It just takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Barbee, who took Texas-El Paso to the NCAA tournament in 2010 before being hired at Auburn later that year, thought his Tigers, despite being 8-9 and winless in the Southeastern Conference at 0-6, were starting to improve.
“We have the leading scoring backcourt in the SEC,” Barbee said. “We’re starting to make strides.”
Harper Williams, who is an administrative assistant at Auburn and Barbee’s former Minuteman teammate and fellow UMass hall of famer, made the trip with him.
Barbee said he and Kellogg have talked about playing each other.
“We can never seem to get it together as far as the dates and where we want to play,” Barbee said. “We’ll get it together someday.
NUMBERS — Williams’ 18 points gave him 1,440 in his career and he passed Horace Neysmith to move into 11th place on UMass’ career chart. He needs 63 points to crack the top 10.
The 38-point margin of victory was the largest in the history of the UMass-Fordham rivalry, surpassing a 30-point Minuteman win in 1996, Fordham’s first season in the Atlantic 10.
UMass’ 16-point halftime lead was its largest lead at intermission this season.
The Minutemen’s 13 3-pointers were the most they made in a game all season.
Trey Davis’ nine assists were a career high, while Tyler Bergantino’s four points and six rebounds tied his career bests.
SELLOUTS — The crowd of 9,493 was the second sellout of the season at the Mullins Center and the third in a home game for UMass, which also sold out the Dec. 7 game against BYU at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. The Minutemen’s Feb. 21 game against Virginia Commonwealth is also sold out. UMass is 8-0 at Mullins this season. It has five more games there this year.
WHIPPLE PREGAME — New UMass football coach Mark Whipple was a featured attraction prior to the game. After greeting fans in the concourse, he met with Court Club members in a pregame reception. After the national anthem, he threw the ball up as part of a ceremonial tipoff and then took the microphone to address the crowd to a standing ovation.