For the Massachusetts Minutemen, Saturday's game was shaping up to be big in more ways than one. There I was in my usual spot in the Mullins Center watching UMass challenge St. Louis for the top of the A-10, only this time there were about 8,400 other fans.
It was the largest crowd in nearly five years, and undoubtedly the biggest home audience of the Kellogg era. Indeed, it's safe to say that coach Kellogg hadn't seen a Mullins Center crowd this big since he was actually out on the court in maroon and white himself back in the early '90s.
The last time UMass basketball had a home crowd this big was during my senior year in 2007. That game saw the Minutemen eke out a 53-50 win over St. Louis. By the half, it was clear that things were going to turn out a little differently this time around. UMass has outscored the Billikens 45-26. The Minutemen had gone 19-of-29 from the field and had 5-of-7 from behind the 3-point line. Meanwhile, St. Louis had made just 10 of 31 attempts.
No student or alum in that crowd had any doubt that UMass could top St. Louis despite the team's recent surge. The Billikens were 16-4 overall and has just capped a 3-game win streak with a 73-68 victory over Xavier. Up until that game, Xavier had gone undefeated at home in A-10 play across 43 straight games. When St. Louis came to UMass on January 28th, they were looking to play the home-wrecker role yet again.
By the time the Minutemen went to lockers after the first half, however, St. Louis looked less like Atlantic 10 leaders and more like the keystone cops. UMass is in the national spotlight, and the home crowd expected thrills. The Minutemen lived up to the hype and then some. The first half saw UMass put up a season-best 65.5% in shooting.
UMass would go on to win 72-59, but not without some stumbles. The level of excitement in that crowd makes it easy to forget just how lackluster the Minutemen were coming out of the locker room in the second half. The noise level in the crowd told the story as an overconfident UMass team essentially rested on its laurels while the Billikens chipped away at the margin. When UMass' lead went down to five, the crowd was almost eerily silent.
It was thanks in large part to Chaz Williams' consistently awesome free-throws that UMass was ultimately able to keep the game out of reach for St. Louis. Williams went 9-of-9 in free-throw shooting in the final five minutes, and 11-of-12 overall.
With their A-10 record now at 5-2, UMass is in a three-way tie for first in the conference, and look all but unstoppable. They'll get a chance to whittle down the top of the standings and defend their 11-0 campus record at their next home game on February 8th. They'll be taking on St. Bonaventure, a team that's tied with UMass for the A-10 lead.
Taurus Londono graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2007.