A large contingent dressed in maroon came down from the Bay State to watch their Minutemen compete in its first NIT "Final Four" since 2008. They were excited when they entered the Garden, but not as upbeat upon departure.
The Stanford Cardinal defeated the UMass Minutemen, 74-64, in the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night at the World's Most Famous Arena The historic college basketball postseason tournament, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, saw an entertaining, back-and-forth battle in the first of two games on Tuesday.
Forward Anthony Brown led Johnny Dawkins' Cardinal with 18 points (13 in second half) on 7-12 shooting. Brown was joined by three teammates - Josh Owens (15 points), Aaron Bright (13 points), and Chasson Randle (12 points) - in double figures.
Brooklyn native and former Hofstra guard Chaz Williams of UMass scored 19 points in a gutty, New York-tough performance. The Minutemen were able to utilize its Garden support to take a one-point lead with about 9 minutes left, but Stanford's constant answers and overwhelming talent proved to be too much.
More, below the fold.
In the first half, Stanford built an imposing 28-16 lead aided by UMass' poor shooting and sloppy ball security. Josh Owens scored 9 points in the first eight minutes.
The Minutemen put the Garden crowd into a frenzy after an impressive 11-1 run late in the first frame. Freddie Riley (10 points) and Raphiael Putney (8 points) provided Derek Kellogg's team with an offensive spark off the bench that brought the Atlantic-10's 5th place finisher back into the game.
Both squads were able to get the ball down below the block into the interior all night, but struggled to finish around the basket. Stanford shot 36.9 from the field, while UMass converted just 33.8% of its attempts.
The second half was defined by recurring waves of UMass momentum. After taking the lead after an emphatic Maxie Esho alley-oop slam and Freddie Riley three, the students from Amherst were jumping up and down with jubilation.
But every time the Minutemen looked like they were ready to gain control for good, the Cardinal came back with a retaliatory bucket. It was Anthony Brown's three pointer with 2:51 left that extended Stanford's lead to eight (63-55) that proved to be the dagger.
"I think that was something that bothered us a little bit during the early part of the season, responding to changes in the momentum," said Josh Owens. "I was really proud of the way the guys fought back."
There is no doubt that the future of both programs is bright. Stanford's most impressive offensive threats, Brown and Randle, are just sophomores and will return to the Cardinal next season. With the uncertainties throughout the Pac-12, Johnny Dawkins' squad could make an appearance at the top of the standings a year from now.
Derek Kellogg is slowly building something special at UMass. Though they fell short on Tuesday, the Minutemen proved that they can compete at the high-major level during the tournament, defeating Seton Hall and Drexel en route to the Garden this week. With Xavier's upcoming rebuilding stage and Temple's pending departure for the Big East, the Minutemen could be a factor in the A-10 in the years to come.
It will be a long ride back up the turnpike for the New Englanders, but they can take solace in the fact that their team surprised many just in getting to the NIT semifinals.
"Just really proud of our guys," mentioned Dawkins afterwards. "I thought they did a great job on a night where we didn't shoot the ball extremely well. We just found a way to win."
Stanford will meet the winner of Tuesday's second game between the Washington Huskies and Minnesota Golden Gophers on Thursday in the NIT championship.
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