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Matt Vautour: UMass-VCU game lives up to hype

JERREY ROBERTS
University of Massachusetts students cheer for the Minutemen during their win against VCU Friday at the Mullins Center.

JERREY ROBERTS University of Massachusetts students cheer for the Minutemen during their win against VCU Friday at the Mullins Center.

Saturday, February 22, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, February 22, 2014)

So often the games with so much hype before hand, fall sadly flat.

A year ago, the University of Massachusetts put much of its promotional might into its senior night game against Butler. A near sellout crowd showed up and watched the Minutemen fall flat against the Bulldogs.

But little this season has resembled failures of the recent past and UMass’ Friday night 80-75 win over Virginia Commonwealth lived up to every expectation.

The game was played at high speed on both sides. Each team’s star players made star plays in front of a very loud, very animated crowd. Even if the Minutemen had lost, rational fans could have recognized they’d seen a special game in a special atmosphere. The crowd was so loud that the UMass players couldn’t hear each other slap the floor.

Minuteman coach Derek Kellogg, who’d been in these types of atmospheres as a player when the Mullins Center was sold out every night, took a moment to soak it in.

“At the beginning of the game, I allowed myself to have a touch of it. It was unbelievable. I was enjoying the moment. When we have a night like this where it goes well, I like to sit back by myself and chill. I love that other people are enjoying our success,” Kellogg said. “It’s great to see all my college friends and my wife’s college friends and my family back around the program enjoying this. For me, that’s euphoria.”

Nine days ago, very little was euphoric at the Mullins Center. After falling to last-place George Mason, the Minutemen looked like they might be fizzling down the stretch after a strong start.

But in hindsight, that loss seemed to be a catalyst for UMass’ resurgence. If the Minutemen had found a way to squeak past the Patriots that day, would they have come together as well as they did to beat George Washington or VCU? While nobody knows the answer, the loss certainly seemed like it was wake-up call as they’ve returned to the form that helped them rise to No. 13 in the poll earlier in the year.

“We came together. We didn’t get down on ourselves after that game,” sophomore Trey Davis said. “We got closer.”

Kellogg was proud of the way his team handled adversity.

“We rebounded from a tough loss to George Mason with two big victories,” Kellogg said. “We can’t settle or rest on our laurels. 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.”

The game should go down as one of the best coaching efforts of Kellogg’s career. The Minutemen were as prepared as any team to face VCU’s “Havoc” system and it showed.

In the press conference afterward, one national reporter began a question to Kellogg, assuming the certainty of UMass making the NCAA tournament. With no wood nearby, Kellogg knocked on the plastic table in front of him in hopes of avoiding the wrath of the gods of superstition.

With an RPI of 13 and 21 victories, including the last two over teams that are also likely bound for the NCAA tournament, Kellogg didn’t dismiss the likelihood that barring a collapse, his team would break its 15-year absence from the Big Dance.

“I do let the guys know we have something special going on here,” Kellogg said. “Take advantage of it. You have to enjoy it because it only happens once. Let’s leave everything on the floor and see where this magical ride can lead us.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage

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