SPRINGFIELD -- Just before tipoff Saturday afternoon at a sold-out MassMutual Center, Chaz Williams left center court. Having already pumped up his four fellow starters for the University of Massachusetts, he went back to the bench and slapped hands with every remaining player on the roster.
The implication was clear. We're all in this together. It's a team game. I can't do this alone.
No doubt, the 21st-ranked Minutemen heeded the message in an emphatic 105-96 victory over a tough Brigham Young squad. Six players scored in double figures for UMass, which ran its record to 8-0 for the first time since the Final Four season of 1995-96.
But make no mistake: This was Chazketball at its finest. The smallest player on the court was far and away the best, putting together an utterly dominating 32-point, 15-assist effort. Both figures were career highs and the assists tied a school record (last notched in 1986 by Carl Smith).
"Everything we kind of had for him he had an answer for," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "The 15 assists were the killers. ... He made five 3s [in seven attempts] and nine free throws [without a miss]. That's a combination that's really kind of hard to deal with."
The sense of Williams' leadership on this team -- never a matter of debate -- was put on bold display 11 minutes into the game during a major fracas for a loose ball on the BYU end. Arms were flailing. Words were flying. Williams, whose 5-foot-9-inch roster listing represents grand exaggeration, was toe to toe with BYU's Eric Mika, whose 6-10 listing seems legit. The resulting double technical foul was something of a Jason Varitek/Alex Rodriguez moment. On the ensuing possession, Williams rained in a 3-pointer, and it was clear the Minutemen were not going to be out-toughed.
"I expect that from him," said fellow senior Sampson Carter, who pumped in a career-high 20 points. "I've seen him every day in practice for years. I know what he's capable of. That's our point guard. I know he has some fire in his heart. I know he's not going to back down. His energy is so contagious. Just to see him like that, that automatically fires me up."
Williams shrugged off the confrontation but admitted it added some zest to the nest.
"A lot," he said. "Once people start to bicker and talk junk, it just fuels our fire."
Williams cuts a fascinating figure on the court. His dark, thickly tattooed torso contrasts with white almost from head to toe: an old-school headband, tanktop uniform, epically long shorts, and extended calf padding. His feet, though, are the color of fire, orange-red basketball shoes. It is the quickness of those feet that have electrified a UMass team and its fan base.
He is a one-man press break. He finds seams on drives into veritable forests of opponents' arms and legs, somehow emerging on the other side to flick in a layup or kick out a pass to an open teammate. He seems to be sprawling on the floor at least half the time his shots go through the hoop. But his greatest attribute is the classic point guard one: He makes the players around him better.
Led by Williams, the Minutemen are in the habit of frequently slapping the floor on defense. It is their version of Clint Eastwood's famous line, "Go ahead, make my day."
They have lots of long and lean and versatile players. Raphiael Putney, a basketball version of a praying mantis, soars way above the rim and also sends up 3-pointers with so much altitude opponents must be tempted to call a fair catch. The combination spelled 15 points Saturday on 4-for-7 shooting, including 3-for-6 from long range.
Similarly built Maxie Esho came off the bench to toss in 12 points and pull down a team-high six rebounds. "I thought his athleticism got us going in the first half," said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. "Maxie's arm is at one part above the rim and everyone else is at the foam [at the bottom of the backboard]."
The play of Putney and Esho helped to offset the foul-plagued game for center Cady Lalanne, who came in as the team's top scorer and rebounder but was limited to just 5 and 3 in 21 minutes.
UMass also got good complementary guard play from Davis (11 points) and Derrick Gordon (10).
That was more than enough to ward off a 7-3 Brigham Young team whose only losses are to nationally ranked teams.
Though this was the first-ever meeting between the two schools, BYU does have some history here in the state of Massachusetts, thanks to some of its graduates. There was former governor Mitt Romney -- who was not in the house -- and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge -- who was. Fans implored Ainge to consider drafting Williams, and after this show maybe that scenario is plausible.
When the Minutemen looked up, they saw a crowd of 7,331, a sellout in their annual game at the MassMutual Center. It was the first home sellout for a UMass game since 2006.
"It was kind of a special day for the program," said Kellogg, who grew up in Springfield.
"Unbelievable energy," added Carter. "They were with us every step of the way."
While UMass plays its home games in Amherst, the MassMutual Center (and its predecessor the Springfield Civic Center) have historically been a place where the Minutemen come to make statements of national belonging.
Their first-ever games in the facility were played in a tournament in late December 1970. Then known as the Redmen, that team would go 23-4. In one of those three games, all victories, a junior named Julius Erving recorded a rather impressive double-double. He had 33 points and 30 rebounds.
In 1992, Kellogg's freshman year as a point guard, UMass knocked off No. 14-ranked Oklahoma, the win that propelled the Minutemen into the AP Top 25 for the very first time.
Then in November, 1994, third-ranked UMass obliterated defending national champion and top-ranked Arkansas, 104-80. Lou Roe, now a member of Kellogg's coaching staff, put forth a pretty impressive double-double of his own with 34 points and 13 rebounds.
Saturday, though, it was Williams' turn. He controlled the game from start to finish and said he was certain the team's success will not lead to any complacency.
"The guys around us are just hungry for more," he said. "None of us are satisfied. Any day can be a loss. We've got to put our foot on the gas and just keep going."