Williams, UMass get their swagger back

AMHERST, Mass. -- Back at the lowest point of University of Massachusetts basketball history in the late ’70s and early ’80s (two wins one season, three the next, an almost unfathomable 29-game losing streak), there was a common joke about the team’s nickname.

Why were they called the Minutemen?

That’s about how long they stayed competitive.

At times, it was true. Once they fell behind West Virginia 25-0.

The 2013-14 UMass team -- the best edition in many moons -- recently had become “the last Minutemen.” All four Atlantic 10 games played before Sunday went right to the wire. UMass had managed three improbable comeback wins followed by a gut-wrenching loss.

On Sunday afternoon at a jam-packed Mullins Center, the high-wire act was not necessary. That was true in large part because of the most minute of the Minutemen, Chaz Williams. The 5-foot-9 (wink-wink) point guard was a metaphorical Manute (as in Manute Bol, the late 7-7 Sudanese center who played in the NBA), leading UMass to a rousing 90-52 victory over Fordham. Williams has stood tall all season for the 13th-ranked Minutemen, who improved to 17-2 (4-1 in the Atlantic 10).

Williams scored 14 of his game-high 18 points in the first half as UMass built a 40-24 lead, then sparked a 17-0 run to start the second frame, earning him his longest rest of the season.

“We wanted to come out and get our swagger back,” Williams said.

Williams sat on the bench in the closing minutes and watched with obvious delight as young players basked in extended garbage time. Three-pointers by Demetrius Dyson and Clyde Santee, and an alley-oop dunk by Seth Berger had Williams virtually glowing on the bench.

Coach Derek Kellogg didn’t have to sweat the final minute this time. In fact, the game was so far in hand that Kellogg’s crew could have prevailed if he paired a couple of the freshmen with team mascot Sam the Minuteman, a trombone player from the pep band, and Kellogg’s own son, Max, reputed to be a decent athlete at age 5.

“Other than the start, that was a nice, complete game for us,” Kellogg said, referencing his team's early 7-0 hole.

The balanced scoring attack also featured 13 points apiece from Trey Davis and Raphiael Putney, and a highlight-heavy 10 from fan favorite Maxie Esho.

But it was Williams, per usual, who led the way, adding eight assists and three steals to his 5-for-9 (4-for-6 beyond the arc) shooting.

“For us, he’s the best point guard in the country,” Kellogg said.

For Fordham coach Tom Pecora, this Chaz concert brought back some painful memories. When Williams began his college career, it was at Hofstra, where Pecora was the coach. That team also included freshman Halil Kanacevic, a multitalented frontcourt player. Now all are plying their wares in the Atlantic 10. When Pecora left to take the Fordham job, both players transferred out: Kanacevic to St. Joseph’s, and -- to the utter delight of fans in Amherst -- Williams to UMass.

“He has just developed tremendously,” Pecora said, before joking, “he’s probably finally getting coached.”

Even as a high school player, the potential for stardom was there, Pecora said.

“His competitive nature and his leadership skills were off the charts, even as a little 10th-grader,” Pecora said. “He just competed on every play. You couldn’t tell him there was anything he couldn’t do. ... He was committed to winning, and he was committed to competing. That’s the most important skill there is.”

Pecora said Williams has vastly improved his strength and his shooting ability, but that the point guard’s core virtues remain the same.

“You can’t play at this level at that size without being a tremendous, tremendous competitor, and he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

In throttling Fordham (8-11, 1-5), UMass was, of course, cashing in one of the only free passes in Atlantic 10 play. Since joining the league in 1995-96, Fordham has largely served as the Washington Generals. In 18 full seasons in the league, the Rams have finished last or tied for last 10 times. On eight separate occasions, they have been 15 or more games under .500. They have had exactly one winning season in that time (18-12 in 2006-07), but since then have limped forward to the tune of 49-143.

Playing before a capacity Mullins Center crowd of 9,493 for the second time this season, UMass had a day that honored the past, even as it pointed to the future. Mark Whipple, the recently reappointed football coach who led the Minutemen to a Division I-AA national title in 1998, spoke to the crowd before the game. Sounding like a script from “That ’70s Show,” he said, “Let’s rock this joint today!”

Halftime saw the Minutemen honor the latest class of the school’s athletic hall of fame. That included Tony Barbee, the current Auburn coach, who was a teammate of Kellogg’s at UMass. Barbee is perhaps best remembered for a falling-down 3-pointer in 1991 against Siena to send an NIT game to overtime. At the time, coach John Calipari called that “the shot of maybe the century for the University of Massachusetts.” The Minutemen won in OT and went to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four.

Subsequent teams went further, of course, and the NIT definitely won’t suffice for this crew. There will be all sorts of four-letter words flying around the fan base if a certain four-letter word doesn’t emerge on a Sunday in March: “NCAA.”

The Minutemen are certainly getting close to that dream -- not achieved for 16 seasons -- but they are not there yet. The road gets tougher, as UMass marches out to a couple of Saints, Bonaventure and Joseph’s, for rematches of games the Minutemen barely won at home. And the iron of the league remains after that. Of four teams with identical or better league records than UMass’ 4-1, the Minutemen have yet to play three: Saint Louis (18-2, 5-0), George Washington (16-3, 4-1) and Virginia Commonwealth (16-4, 4-1).

Kellogg knows that the teams that really have memorable years are the ones that are able to find another gear in the latter stages of the season.

“It’s a different challenge for us,” Kellogg said. “Everybody’s against you, charging the floor after games,” which Richmond fans did after the Spiders beat UMass on Wednesday. “We’ve got to be that much more sharp, that much more ready to play.”

“We’re still hungry for more,” Williams said. “We want to keep working, and we want to keep getting better. Every team is going to be tough coming up. We just have to come with our best shot.”

For one day at least, the Minutemen were the men of the hour. If they can play at this level, there is reason to believe that after 16 long years, their time has come.