AMHERST, Mass. -- The Minutemen were already moving toward it, but Friday night they made it inevitable.
This team will ensure the school returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 16 years.
It's been such a long time coming. The fans have been dying for it. They proved it Friday night, as they packed the place -- a rare sellout these days at the Mullin Center -- and the home team rewarded them with one of the biggest victories in years.
UMass held off VCU 80-75 to improve to 21-5 and lock up another fantastic win. Add it on to the conquers against bubble teams LSU, Clemson and BYU. Plus, it also owns a win over another comfortable NCAA tourney team in New Mexico. It's a done deal, barring a total collapse, which seems very unlikely given this team's experience and talent.
This was one of the best atmospheres at the arena in years. Those who'd been coming to Minutemen games for years said it felt like how used to feel like, when the program was rolling under John Calipari in the 1990s.
"To start the game I had a little touch of it. It was unbelievable," UMass coach Derek Kellogg said of it feeling like the '90s. "There was a time there where I was enjoying the moment. I like nights when we have this. I like to go back and chill out and enjoy myself. I love that other people are enjoying themselves. To see my college friends, my wife's college friends. ... It's euphoria, it's unbelievable."
Kellogg's a Calipari disciple, the sixth-year coach at the school who played under Cal during those '90s glory days. With each year he's been here the program's gotten better, gotten closer. Finally, it's all but a formality. Kellogg will have his team's name called out by Greg Gumbel in just 22 days. It's been a huge week for UMass, which got a tough six-point road win at George Washington last Saturday.
In case you weren't keeping tabs, the Atlantic 10 is again a league that's bound to send at least four teams to the NCAAs. Five is the expectation. George Washington is very much a candidate, alongside UMass and VCU, to be in that crop. So for Kellogg to get his guys to rebound from a humiliating home loss to an 8-15 George Mason team on Feb. 12, to follow it up with two decisive victories like this, it's proof plus signal that a culmination's at play here in Amherst.
“I tell the guys, 'We do have some special going on, and take advantage of it. Take advantage of the crowd and the way it is,'" Kellogg said. "You don't want to look bad on your career and say, 'What if?' What if I had played a little bit harder. ... I played here when we were going to NCAA tourney quite frequently, and the games were sold out. And I sold these guys on a vision. To me, that's special, because each and every one one of these guys: I sat in their living room or got them to come here.”
Senior guard Chaz Williams had a game-high 20 points, including 8-of-8 from the foul line, half of those coming in the final 16 seconds to clinch the win. Even more impressive: The Minutemen won against that VCU pressure without making a 3-pointer. It was the first time since March 1, 2006, that the Minutemen didn't sink a 3 in a game.
"Once we were 0 for 6, I told my guys to stop shooting 3s," Kellogg said, half-seriously. "I told them, 'Why settle? Get to the free throw line.'"
For VCU, the Rams are still safely in the field, but this was the best chance the Rams had left on the regular-season schedule to get a worthwhile road win. The team's March 1 home game against Saint Louis will be a big one for the dossier, regardless.
And as opposed to UMass' two straight wins, this is back-to-back losses for Shaka Smart's team. By nature of this loss, Saint Louis has essentially wrapped up the A-10 regular season title. The Billikens, undefeated in league play, have a three-game lead on everyone with five games to go.
"I thought the game was an exciting one, back and forth, I thought UMass did a really good job of finding a way to scrap out some plays where it got them some extra possessions," Smart said.
The turnover margin was plus-three for UMass, making it just the third time this season VCU lost the turnover battle.
"Chaz showed it on that last steal. They have that ability to ratchet up that defense," Smart said.
Williams got that steal -- on the nation's leading swiper, Briante Weber, in a one-point game with 16 ticks to go.
"We bring PAIN," Williams said of the team's slogan, which stands for "Pressure, Agitate, Interrupt, Neutralize."
Williams added, "We don't bring no HAVOC. That's their slogan, that's what they do. We all about PAIN over here."
Whatever it is, it's finally working and UMass is headed back to the NCAA tournament.