No.2 Wisconsin survives No. 4 North Carolina to advance to NCAA Tournament Elite Eight

Sam Dekker scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as top-seeded Wisconsin defeated fourth-seeded UNC 79-72 Thursday night to head back to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight for the second consecutive year, playing the winner of No. 2 seed Arizona versus sixth-seeded Xavier on Saturday.

Senior Player of the Year candidate Frank Kamisnky added 19 points and eight boards for Wisconsin, making all eight free throws he attempted. The Badgers attempted 23 free throws as a team, making 20 of them and their final eight down the stretch.

With the score 60-56 in favor of the Tar Heels and just seven minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin went on a 9-0 run to take a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the way.

UNC, however, did not go down quietly as junior Marcus Paige hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to 71-70 with 54 seconds left. Paige finished with 12 points, and was one of three Tar Heels to finish the game with double-digits. Forwards Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson each ended the contest with 15.

Head coach Roy Williams said he was “tired of congratulating people” but admired the toughness his team exhibited on this night.

“Well, you have to congratulate Wisconsin. I think the toughness that they showed today was really something,” Williams said regarding his team’s effort. “It’s strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small.

“We had J.P. on the breakaway, not a breakaway, but open court, and we didn’t convert on that one. Then they came back and scored nine in a row.”

Despite drilling 61 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, Williams’ squad could not sustain the pressure from the Badgers, who only shot 33 percent from downtown. Both teams attempted 56 shots total, and each shot 46 percent from the field.

When asked what guard Josh Gasser was doing to limit his offensive opportunities, Paige agreed with his coach and acknowledged Gasser’s competitive edge on the defensive side of the ball.

“Well, like coach said, he was just competing,” Paige said. “Every possession he understood how important it was for him to take that challenge today to guard me. He chased me around every screen. Every time I caught the ball he was right there.”

Going into the second half with a two-point lead, Wisconsin was able to turn it on offensively, led by efforts from Dekker and Kaminsky.

“Our defensive pressure is something we talked about coming into this game. We wanted to pressure them and not allow them to be comfortable, and we did that for the most part,” Paige said.

“The problem was we couldn’t finish our defense on key possessions. You know, they got a tip-out or offensive rebound and that’s how they made us pay today. They would kick it out and make a three, or run another 35 seconds off the clock.”

Jackson, who was tasked with guarding Kaminsky, was able to limit his chances in the opening 20 minutes, but they could not keep Dekker off the scoresheet. Instead, the junior embraced being given many chances, ending with a career-best in points.

“No, not at all. Obviously he’s a great player. We had some lapses in there, but good players are going to get theirs,” Jackson said regarding the play of Dekker.

Despite the trouble that Williams’ team went through off the court, the coach recognized the bond his players had, which helped him make this season an enjoyable one.

“You know, the bond that you have. Coach Alvarez knows this too, the bond that you have with your players is the strongest, stronger than anything there is, I thin,” he said.

“Even when they’re knuckle heads, you still have that bond. And when you coach kids, you give them everything you can give them. Today it wasn’t enough. But I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody. And Bo’s got a great group, and Bo’s team won the game, but I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody’s.”

Belmont basketball has a blast in NCAA Tournament

Craig Bradshaw backpedaled down the court, turned towards the sidelines, and bellowed out, “I called that,” with a huge smile sweeping across his face.

Bradshaw had just missed the rim by a solid two feet on a 3-point attempt, only to connect high up on the backboard, with his shot ricocheting perfectly into the bottom of the net, pulling his 15th seeded Bruins to within two of second-seed Virginia, 62-60, with 4:26 remaining in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

And now Bradshaw was having a blast.

Belmont would eventually fall 79-67 as the Cavaliers closed out the game on a 17-7 run, but it didn’t for a second diminish their magical year, capped by an improbable run to the tourney.

“First off, we played a great basketball team. Virginia made the winning plays in the last three minutes that we didn’t make, and they deserve to win. They were the better team,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said after the game. “That being said, I’m certainly proud of our team’s performance, I’m proud of their fight and grit and determination and the plays that they made, and we played a great team.

“I don’t have the play-by-play but somewhere in the neighborhood of three minutes we had a real, real chance to win that basketball game and just didn’t get it done.”

Bradshaw led all scorers with 25 points, going 10-of-19 from the field and 5-of-9 from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-3-inch guard, who appeared to be playing at the ankles of the towering Cavaliers, also racked up nine rebounds.

Photo courtesy of Belmont Athletics
Photo courtesy of Belmont Athletics
“I don’t think you ever think you’re going to win the game against those guys, they string together some stops,” Bradshaw said. “I felt good about how I was shooting. We were running a good offense and they just made some good stops at the end, made more winning plays in the end.”

“When Craig plays like he did today and he’s obviously a first team OVC guy and played like that a lot he makes us a way better team,” Byrd added. “He’s fearless. He loves situations like that, that he’s in. Who he’s playing against and the circumstances in the game matter not to him at all. “

The Cavaliers entered the game leading the nation scoring defense at roughly 50 points allowed per game, but according to Belmont senior Reece Chamberlain, the Bruins handled the high-pressure defense well.

“They’re a great team, we knew that coming in, that the shots we normally get were going to come tough,” he said. “I thought we did a great job, and there’s only one stretch in the first half where we kind of got carried away and didn’t run offense but I think overall we did a pretty good job of moving the ball and working in until we got some good shots.”

For the Cavaliers, four players reached double digits, spearheaded by 22 from junior guard Malcolm Brogdon. Justin Anderson, who missed games from Feb. 11 to March 7, added 15 points and five rebounds in the winning effort.

“Well, I think he’s closer than he was a week ago obviously. He stepped back and made a three tonight and that had to make him all feel good,” Byrd said regarding Anderson’s performance.

“Overall he’s their best offensive player I think,” Byrd added. “But the beauty of their team is that you’ve got guys, Brogdon can do that, Gill can have a great game, what did he get, 16? You’ve got a lot of guys on that team that can score 15 or 16 points in a game and up can’t just focus on any one guy. They’re a better offensive team than they get credit for only because they’re such a great defensive team.”

Despite a sour end to the season, the future is bright for Belmont. Graduating only three seniors, the Bruins will return four of their five starters, and their top three scorers in Bradshaw, and rising juniors Taylor Barnette and Evan Bradds, who each played a staring role in getting the Bruins to the NCAA Tournament.

Both Bradshaw and Bradds exhibited excitement when they were asked whether or not they think they’ll return to the tournament next year.

“I don’t think you can say anything for sure but we have a really young team and Mack (Mercer) played great tonight and I’m really looking forward to his development,” Bradshaw said. “Amanze (Egekeze) is the starter, we’ve got really young guys, and I think we’re going to be really good next year. It’s up to us.

“Like he said we are very young. I’m excited, we all work really hard, so we’re just hoping we can work hard enough to get back here next year,” Bradds said.

Will Davis II leads UC Irvine into first NCAA Tournament

Will Davis. Photo Credit: UC Irvine Athletics
Will Davis. Photo Credit: UC Irvine Athletics

Will Davis II went to UC Irvine to win a championship and go the NCAA Tournament. It’s a journey that proved to be far longer and more winding than he had ever expected, but that much sweeter when he eventually reached his final destination.

“It feels great because looking back in 20 years at UC Irvine, you can say ‘oh it was Will Davis, Travis Souza and John Ryan’s class that led UC Irvine to their first NCAA tournament’,” says Davis, a senior forward and First Team All-Conference selection on leading the Anteaters to the first NCAA Tournament appearance in the program’s 38 year Division I history.

“It’s just great to make school history my last year here,” he says, before adding, “it definitely took a little longer than I thought.”

Humble beginnings.

Now standing 6’8” and 210 pounds, Davis was born and raised in Sacramento, Calif., one of Theresa and Will Davis Sr.’s five children. Davis says he was always a big kid with good athleticism, but picked up the game late and was far from a natural on the court.

“I was kind of a late bloomer in basketball because I didn’t play at all in middle school, so the first time I played organized basketball was probably my freshman year in high school,” says Davis, who didn’t make the varsity at Sacramento High School until his junior year and didn’t start until he was a senior. “I played JV my freshman and sophomore years, then I got moved up to varsity my junior and senior years.

As a senior, Davis averaged 11 points and 12 rebounds per game, earning All-Metro League honors, but he received only one Division I scholarship offer, from Air Force. It was then that Davis took a long look in the mirror, and decided that he had not given everything he had to the game, and vowed to get better, enrolling at New Hampton Prep, a prestigious prep basketball program in New Hampshire, while finally “getting serious” about basketball.

“I started getting more serious into working out going into my senior year at prep school, and obviously at college you have a staff that’s around you to work you out more, so that’s been a great experience in my development over the years.”

Playing in the NEPSAC, one of the best prep leagues in the country, Davis’ began to blossom, and scholarship offers started rolling in. But his heart still resided under the California sun, and when UC Irvine offered, Davis took a visit, and immediately fell in love.

“I went to prep school on the east coast in New Hampshire where I got that experience of being in that gray area, but then I decided I wanted to come back to California,” says Davis. “That’s where my family is from and I obviously love to have my family come up for games and that’s been a good experience.”

According to Davis, several coaches from far programs with far more storied histories tried to dissuade him from enrolling at UC Irvine.

“They said ‘why go there when you can come here and win,’” he says, ‘but I thought wherever I’d go I’d win.”

And according to Davis, the reception he received and culture of the program at UC Irvine was unlike any others he encountered during the recruiting process.

“UC Irvine was like a real family experience when I came on my visit here and that was different from the other visits I went on, so that was great.”

Davis made an immediate impact for the Anteaters, breaking the programs single-season record for most blocked shots in a single-season with 55 as a freshman, before smashing his own record with 88 rejections a year later (one more year later and 7’6” center Mamadou Ndiaye would break Davis’ record). As a sophomore, Davis earned the Big West’s award for Best Defensive Player and was named to CollegeInsider.com’s Mid-Major Defensive All-America team.

As a junior, Davis was a preseason first team All-Conference selection, but while he led the team in scoring and rebounds, was not selected for the award. But according to Davis, the far deeper sting came when the Anteaters, who had won the Big West regular season championship, were upset in the Big West Tournament.

“We really thought last year was going to be our year,” he says.

There were times during his senior year when things looked bleak for Davis and his Anteaters, who suffered through a litany of injuries, but Davis vowed not to go down without a fight.

“We’ve had injuries to John (Ryan), Dominique (Denning), Luke (Nelson), Mamadou (Ndiaye) and Alex (Young), so (Russell) Turner came up to me and told me I needed to take on more of a leadership role,” Davis said. “I felt like I could ride into that, being a senior leader on this team and also with Travis (Souza) and John taking on big loads as well.”

Davis led UC Irvine in scoring and rebounds, at 12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, respectively, while shooting .541 from the floor and .707 from the line to earn Big West First Team All-Conference honors as a senior.

“It was great because last year I was picked in the preseason to be first team all-conference and I ended up not being on it, I didn’t have that well of a conference season last year,” he says. “This year I wasn’t picked, so that was a little more motivation for me to show the conference what kind of player I actually am. I

“It’s given me more confidence that head coaches from other teams vote on it, so it’s something that coaches from other teams have confidence in my ability to play.”

In the Big West tournament, he put the Anteaters on his back, posting double-doubles in all three games, averaging 15 points and 12 rebounds while shooting .667 from the floor to earn he tournament MVP honors and finally punch his ticket to The Big Dance.

“It’s an amazing feeling. This is what I came here to do, and it took us longer than I thought, but that makes it feel that much more incredible,” he says.

Now, Davis is focused on trying to write yet another new chapter in UC Irvine history tonight night when his No. 13 Anteaters team takes on No. 4 seed Louisville tonight in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“The mentality right now is that we just gotta’ prepare. We know they have a great team and great coach in Rick (Pitino), so we’re not taking them lightly at all, and hopefully we can keep it close.”

Hampton basketball: A collect call to Jesus before playing Kentucky

Hampton head coach Ed Joyner. Photo Credit: Hampton Athletics
Hampton head coach Ed Joyner. Photo Credit: Hampton Athletics / David Wegiel Jr. 

Ed Joyner had Jesus on speed dial after Hampton knocked off Manhattan in the NCAA Tournament First Round on Tuesday night. The messiah answered, but once the Pirates’ head coach asked about his team’s chances of knocking off their next opponent, undefeated Kentucky, Jesus hung up on him.

At least, that’s the story Joyner told in the post game press conference.

It comes with Hampton basketball’s new standing in the hoops world: Straight underdog status, the term guard Reggie Johnson used to describe his team’s upcoming game against Kentucky.

After defeating Manhattan 74-64, the Pirates will now try and pull off one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history and hand the No. 1 seed Wildcats their first loss of the season.

“We got nothing to lose,” Joyner said. “We’re gonna’ go out and play, try to execute our game plan and try to win the game.”

Against the offensive juggernaut that head coach John Calipari has assembled down in Lexington, Joyner may need Jesus on his side to simply have a prayer against the Wildcats.

Led by future lottery picks Will Cauley-Stein (7’) and Karl Anthony-Town (6’11”), the Wildcats went 34-0 in the regular season, winning all 18 games in conference play before taking home the conference tournament title.

“They have nine or ten pros over there, so we’re just gonna’ try and make every shot hard and make them play a little defense by moving the ball and keeping them off the glass,” Joyner said.

With Kentucky’s roster full of NBA-talent, led by their twin towers up front, Joyner’s front court will have its hands full. But according to their head coach, Hampton isn’t intimidated.

“The biggest parts of it will be Jervon (Pressley) and Emmanuel (Okoroba) and Charles (Wilson-Fisher),” said Joyner. “Quinton (Chievous) will also be in there, but of course he’s well on the side. Those three guys are gonna’ have to go battle their tails off and hopefully try and contain them a little bit,” said Johnson. “I think it’s going to be very important. It’s gonna’ be important for them to stay out of foul trouble, one, and to go at them and make them play defense as well.”

Chievous, who recorded a double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds against the Jaspers before getting injured, acknowledged the performance of Pressley in the game versus Manhattan. However, he knows the Wildcats are a far different animal than the Jaspers.

“I feel like it’s gonna’ be a lot different because they have so many options in the front court. We just gotta’ go out and play tough,” said Chievous.

Besides the big men the Wildcats possess, they also have a dynamite backcourt. Directed by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Chievous and Co. will have to limit the opportunities these two are able to create in the offensive end.

“We’re just gonna have to defend,” Joyner said. “They’re definitely talented players, we gotta stay in front of them and make them take tough, contested shots.

“Hopefully they’re missing more than they make.”

Johnson, who recorded 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in the play-in game, will have to spearhead the Pirates back court defense.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity,” he said. “We know those guys are great guards in college basketball and it’s an opportunity for us to come in and play a good game. We’re a guard-heavy team, so it’s gonna be a great game guards-on-guards.”

Joyner is also counting on a big effort from point guard Deron Powers. The 5’11” junior tallied eight points and dished out seven assists against the Jaspers, and will have to use his quickness to get by the Kentucky defense in transition.

Regardless of what happens in the game Thursday night, Chievous is incredibly proud of all that his team has accomplished this year, and thankful for tonight’s opportunity.

“It’s amazing, first off we’re the only team in MEAC history to have two NCAA tournament wins,” he said. “We’re so happy and blessed right now that we got passed the first round and will always be remembered at our school and hopefully we can be remembered even more if something happens against Kentucky,”

Hampton’s Quinton Chievous: Following his father’s footsteps

Quinton Chievous. Photo Credit: Mark W. Sutton / Hampton Athletics
Quinton Chievous. Photo Credit: Mark W. Sutton / Hampton Athletics

Hampton University senior guard Quinto Chievous is used to it: Whenever his name is brought up in a conversation about basketball, he usually isn’t the subject.

His father is.

It comes with the territory when you follow in the footsteps of a father, Derrick Chievous, who still stands as the all-time leading scorer and arguably the greatest player in University of Missouri history, and who, after college dominance, went on to play in the NBA.

But according to Chievous, who struggled to make his way onto the court at a BCS school before transferring down to a relatively unknown mid-major, only to lead his team to the NCAA Tournament, he’s never felt like he was playing in his father’s shadow,

“I mean, I was young so I don’t even remember that much, but I’ve always heard great stories about my father and what he was like as a player in college and in the pros,” he says.

“He helped me learn a lot of the plays and players and helped me develop as I got older. The older I got, specifically in my sophomore and junior years of high school, he helped me gain more knowledge about the game.”

Chievous, a 6’6” 215-pound wing, excelled at Notre Dame College Prep, being named All-City and All-State by the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as being a McDonald’s All-American nominee his senior year, earning scholarship offers from a host of high-majors along the way, before ultimately deciding to head south and play at the University of Tennessee.

Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out.

Chievous redshirted his freshman year, averaged only 10.2 minutes per game the next year, and could find his way onto the court for 32 total minutes spread over nine games the following season.

After graduating early with a degree in communications thanks to a fast academic track, Chievous knew he had to make a change, and packed his bags and headed a few hours north to Norfolk to use his last two years of eligibility at Hampton University.

“I just felt like it was the right school,” he says. “I liked the graduate program and I saw they had a chance to win their conference tournament, so I felt like that was a good place to go.

”Going to the Sweet 16 [at Tennessee] I wanted to go back to the tournament and experience it again, so I wanted to go to a school where I would have the chance to do that.”

Hampton head coach Edward Joyner, who led the Pirates to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 before leading them back into the NCAAs this year, was ecstatic when he learned of Chievous’ decision to attend Hampton. Joyner had just lost a crucial player in Du’Vaughn Maxwell, and knew Quinton could fill that void.

“We were excited. Ironically, we said we needed a guard/forward type who could play multiple positions and help us better the team from a production standpoint and we thought that Quinton could be a big piece of that,” says Joyner.

“One strength is that he’s very versatile. He can guard different positions for us, really from three to five. He can play different positions for us, he’s played some two some three some four.

Sometimes so-called “drop-down players” carry with them oversized egos and miniscule work-ethics when they drop down from a BCS program to a small school. But according to Joyner, Cheivous has been one of the Pirates hardest workers since day one.

Despite not having much experience as a starter in college, Joyner felt Chievous could make an instant impact, so he was thrown in the starting five immediately last season, and Chievous responded, scoring in double-figures in 11 of his first the first 13 games of the season.

“If you know the game of basketball and have enough knowledge, it’s not that bad,” says Chievous of learning a new system and a new role on the fly.

“One thing that he did understand was that it takes a little time and there are a lot of decisions that you have to make on the court in college that at some point caught him by surprise,” says Joyner, “He had to learn and play through a lot of those situations more than I think he thought he would, but he’s done a good job.”

In 33 games as a Pirate, Chievous is averaging 10 points, six rebounds in 25 minutes per game. But according to Joyner, Chievous true value can’t be summarized in his raw numbers.

“I think he’s one of the key reasons that we were able to win a championship this year,” he says. “Quinton is a young man who understands roles and how his roles varied from night to night. One night we may need him to score in a big way, another night we may need him to rebound, or another we just may need his energy.

He has a bunch of different roles and he’s able to be that guy that whatever we need, he’s there to fill that role.”

With a play-in game set for Tuesday night against Manhattan in the NCAA tournament, the winner of which will play Tournament overall No. 1 seed Kentucky, Chievous knows what’s at stake,.

“It means a lot,” he says of his return to the Big Dance. “I’m really just trying to get that first win so I can add on to my legacy of going to the tournament and winning. A 16 seed has never beaten a one seed so it will be a very difficult task.”

But Cheivous isn’t going to shy away from the spotlight, or any opponent, even if it’s the mighty Wildcats.

“Anything is possible in March, and we have the chance to do something great.”

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Tulsa basketball’s Rashad Ray: When the levees burst

Rashad Ray, photo courtesy of Tulsa Athletics
Rashad Ray, photo courtesy of Tulsa Athletics

Tulsa basketball’s Rashad Ray was just a 10-year-old kid when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees burst, washing away most of his hometown of New Orleans in 2005 and killing at least 1,833 people in the process.

In the two days he and his stranded family fought to survive at the heart of the storm, Ray learned a great deal about life and death.

“We stayed during the hurricane and couldn’t get out until two days after,” says Ray, a 5’10” junior guard for the Golden Hurricane. “It was very hard to go through. We didn’t know the hurricane was gonna be like that at first, that’s why we stayed. Then it bumped up to a Category 5 and wiped our city away.”

Ten years later, both Ray and his city remain forever changed by the horrific storm.

“I just don’t think our city will ever be the same,” he says. “It just makes me not take things for granted and try to grind for everything that I want in life, whether it’s on or off the court.”

Born on the Bayou

Ray was born in New Orleans to Eric and Demitri Ray, and raised in the Big Easy alongside his two sisters.

Despite its reputation as a party city for tourists, life outside of the bright lights of Bourbon Street is hard, as the city boasts sky-high poverty and violent crime rates.

“It was kinda tough,” says Ray of growing up in New Orleans.

Still, Ray loves the unique charm of the Cajun city.

“Being there is really different from a lot of places,” he says. “It’s one of a kind, I think it’s a great place to be and it gave me a different view of the grind because I just feel like a lot of people from New Orleans come from nothing.”

Finding a new home

Ray excelled for O.P. Walker high school as an upperclassman, earning three-year letters in his career while being named first-team all-state, all-metro and all-district honors as a prep senior. But despite racking up wins, awards and accolades, many higher-level schools couldn’t see past his listed height of 5’10” (and even that mark may be a bit generous).

But one school that took an interest was Tulsa, and then Golden Hurricane’s head coach and former NBA player Danny Manning. When Tulsa offered Ray late in the signing period he jumped on it.

“It was late for me. I didn’t have that many offers coming out of high school and I was just trying to get to the right spot and a great fit,” he says. “When I got the call from Tulsa I thought it was a real good opportunity to come here and be great for this program.”

In his first two years with the Hurricanes, Ray played in 65 games, including all 34 in his sophomore season, serving as instant energy, averaging 7.1 points and 1.7 assists per game as a freshman and 6.8 points and 2.5 assists as a sophomore. During his sophomore campaign, with Ray serving as a sparkplug coming off the bench, Tulsa punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

Making a big first impression the second time around

The past offseason, Manning left for the head coaching job at Wake Forest, and was replaced by Frank Haith, who had spent three years at the University of Missouri. The relationship between a new coach and holdover players can be a dicey one, but Haith was won over immediately by Ray’s game and hutle.

“In the process of taking the job, I had a tape put together of all the guys, and watching him on tape the thing that really jumped out at me was his speed and quickness,” Haith says. “From a statistical standpoint he had a good assist-to-turnover ratio, so he’s a pretty efficient player in that regard.

“There are some things he can get better at, one being his shooting and he has made huge strides there.”

Playing in their first season in the American Athletic Conference, the Golden Hurricanes have shocked the league by going 21-9, falling just short to SMU as regular season champions. Ray has started just five games, but currently ranks second on the team in assists at 3.0 per game and fourth in scoring at 7.4 points per game.

“We’ve always looked at Ray like that (as a starter) because he’s gonna play starter minutes,” Haith says. “Having a guy like that coming off the bench who’s like a starter is a great advantage.

“He’s had really good moments and has helped us win some big games this year.”

Going up against high caliber teams like SMU, Cincinnati, Temple and UConn, Ray said the mentality is to take it a day at a time, and prepare the right way.

“We just gotta be ready to take on the challenge and get prepared through practice and stuff like that,” he says. “Preparing to go against some really good players on really good teams is the key in a big conference like that.”

Both Ray and Haith agree that the pint-sized point guard has made huge strides in several areas on the court, chief among them his shooting touch, as his 3-point percentage has jumped from .286 last season to .385 this year.

“Probably shooting the ball and becoming more of a vocal leader,” Ray says of his biggest areas of growth. “Talking to my teammates and being a floor general just trying to make sure things stay under control and focused on what we’re trying to do is what I try to do most.”

“Obviously he’s grown in a lot of areas in terms of shooting, his defending, and defensive rebounding,” Haith says. “As a little guy he’s got great instincts and anticipation to get loose balls, and I think that’s a tremendous asset in terms of making plays like that. He’s had a great year and is only getting better.”

Looking ahead, looking back

After making the NCAA tournament last year with an inexperienced group, Ray said it would mean a lot to him to make it back to that national stage and prove his team is more than capable of hanging in with big teams.

“I feel like that’s how it goes, the goal is always to make it back to the tournament and nothing less,” he says. “Especially with this group now, we’re older and have more experience, and I feel like we can do some great things in the tournament.”

And if he makes it back to the game’s brightest lights, he’ll be playing without any fear, no matter who the opponent is.

“Everyday on the court is a blessing. After going through everything I did, you have to appreciate it and make the most of it,” he says. “There’s no way I’ll ever be scared on the court after what I went through during Katrina.”

Jabarie Hinds has found a new home and embraced a new role at UMass

Jabarie Hinds. Photo Credit: UMass Athletics.
Jabarie Hinds. Photo Credit: UMass Athletics.

Jabarie Hinds has finally found comfort, happiness and home on the court.

It’s been a long road to get here – far longer than the miles logged between his hometown of Mount Vernon, N.Y., to Morgantown, W. Va., and finally to Amherst, Mass. It’s a journey that has seen Hinds go from a top 100 high school prospect, to starter and star in the making as a freshman at a Big 12 school, only to find himself riding on the pine, before transferring to a rebuilding UMass program and embracing a role coming off the bench.

But it’s one he’s thankful for.

“I definitely think the journey has made me a better player and a better person for it,” says Hinds, who is currently averaging 8.2 points and 21.9 minutes per game as a super-sub for the Minutemen.

“I love having his intensity and speed coming off the bench,” says UMass head coach Derek Kellogg. “When the other team is a little tired or he can go against their secondary guys because his speed and ability to score becomes that much more evident.”

It’s a role that Hinds has embraced, but one he never imagined for himself when he was first setting out on his basketball own.

As a teenager at Mount Vernon High, Hinds was the big man on campus and a bona fide star. A two-time Mr. Basketball by the West Westchester County Basketball Coaches Association, the Class AA state Player of the Year by the New York State Sportswriters Association and the only player in Mount Vernon history to win five Section 1 championships, things came easy to Hinds, who was ranked the 73rd best player in the nation by ESPN, on the court and scholarships rolled in from every corner of the country.

Hinds eventually decided on accepting a scholarship from Bob Huggins at Big 12 power West Virginia. Hinds hit the ground running for the Mountaineers, starting 59 of the first 60 games of his career, averaging 7.4 points per game in each of his two seasons. But by the end of his sophomore year, Hinds decided that West Virginia just wasn’t the right fit for him, and after the season, received his release.

“West Virginia is a very good school, I was there on a full scholarship,” says Hinds. “But I just felt after my sophomore year I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing out on the basketball court”

Going through the recruiting process for a second time, this time as a transfer, proved to be a much tougher road than the one he walked as a high school star.

“It was a little stressful process honestly,” Hinds says of the time he spent searching for another school. “So for that I just wanted to find a different place where I could be more comfortable and that was more adjusted to my type of game and start from there.”

According to Kellogg, the seventh-year head coach found out about Hinds’ release at the same as the rest of the college basketball world.

“I think around the same time everyone else did, it was kind of word of mouth, and then they put a release out,” Kellogg says of when he found out Hinds was looking for a new team.

“Once I heard, I thought he would be a great fit here. We watched him a bunch in high school, we know his high school program very well at Mount Vernon and I always thought that in a fast, up-tempo game that he could be very effective.”

After going through the appropriate channels, Kellogg reached out to Hinds’ family and high school coach, comparing the guard to an old UMass player who had also attended Mount Vernon in New York.

“Chris (Lowe) played at the same high school, and he had a great career here,” Kellogg sayus. “They resemble each other a little bit in their play, so I thought that was a good interlude to him coming here.”

Kellogg thought Hinds would be a perfect fit for the kind of run-and-gun offense he wanted to execute, and Hinds was an easy sell once he met with the coach.

“Obviously we were excited because at the time we thought he was a guy that could help solidify our backcourt both as a point guard and also as a scorer,” Kellogg added. “He was able to put the ball in the basket at WVU and if you can do that in the Big 12 in that level of play, I was confident that given the right situation he could do it here in the A-10.”

“Coach (Kellogg) prays on pushing the ball, making plays and stuff like that, and that’s what I think I’m better at, just playing off instinct,” says Hinds.

NCAA transfer rules forced Hinds to redshirt last season, as the guard sat out as a spectator while the Minutemen punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years. Hinds admits that it was tough spend the season watching from the sidelines, but credits it as a learning experience.

“Yeah it was tough, but it wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be,” he says. “It went by real fast, seeing the games you wish you could be out there, but now I’m here about to finish my third year playing basketball in college, so it wasn’t that bad.”

Kellogg acknowledged the cabin-fever like difficulties Hinds, like all players, had to face sitting out, but credited him with making the most out of his time.

“It’s never easy. We do have some guys here who have been through it, whether it’s Derrick Gordon or some other guys, they were able to give him some positive advice,” says Kellogg.

“He was also able to practice so he did a good job of trying to learn the system, but there’s nothing like playing. It’s taken him a little while to get acclimated to the real game action and making his decisions. I think he’s shown flashes throughout the season and I think at this point he’s starting to get really comfortable.”

In his first full season at UMass, Hinds has been used in a countless roles, beginning the season on the bench, before starting six consecutive games from Dec. 7 to Jan. 3, only to move back on the bench. But he says he embraced his role on the team, no matter whether he heard his name called in the starting lineup or not.

“It wasn’t hard, I was playing either way,” Hinds says. “I was just trying to find my niche and I guess coach Kellogg did that just to see how I was gonna’ play as a starter, because I wasn’t playing that well off the bench and then he took me back out of the lineup.

“Now my main role is coming off the bench and trying to give the team energy and just adapting to that role and taking it the best way I can.”

With a deep back court featuring Trey Davis, Gordon, and Donte Clark, Kellogg knew he would need to use some of his backcourt talent as reserves, and found that Hinds’ energy and team-first mentality were perfect to provide instant energy off the bench.

“It was just one of those things where I was trying to find out where he was most comfortable,” says Kellogg. “Early on he was most comfortable off the bench, I thought I’d give him a starting role for a little while, and then the best thing for our team was him coming back off the bench.”

And since moving back to the bench, Hinds has elevated his play, scoring in double-digits in six of the Minutemen’s last 11 games, including a season-high 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting at URI on Feb. 17, followed up by 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting against 25th ranked VCU. In a Feb. 11 contest at St. Bonaventure, Hinds drilled a game-winning 3-pointer to gave UMass a vital conference win.

“I worked hard this summer trying to get better on my jump shot and still have more work to do on other things like studying the game,” Hinds says. “Knowing I’m making an impact some games out here for my team is very special.”

Kellogg knows how important it is to get these contributions from Hinds, and appreciates the effort he is getting from the guard.

“I think it’s great. We obviously, like most teams, need points. We gotta’ put points on the board and for him to be able to balance his great defense with his ability to distribute and also put the ball in the basket has been beneficial for our team to stay in and win some games,” he says.

Moving forward, Kellogg hopes Hinds continues to keep up his energy as the heads into the Atlantic-10 conference tournament.

When asked if he had any goals he would like to achieve, Hinds keeps it simple.

“Just trying to win as much as I can before my college career is over.”

Daquan Holiday: Who says nice guys finish last

Daquan Holiday.
Daquan Holiday.

The saying goes that nice guys finish last. For Daquan Holiday – described by his coach, teammates and basically everyone who has ever crossed paths with him as one of the nicest guys around — finishing first was never a possibility.

And while his college basketball peers have begun each season waking up to dreams of reaching the NCAA Tournament, Holiday, a 6’8” senior forward, has never had that luxury. Suiting up for four years for New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), the only school in all of Division I without a conference to call its own, Holiday has played his entire career without a chance at an auto bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Holiday knew all of this when he committed to play for NJIT and head coach Jim Engles four years ago, but he never had any doubts about where he wanted to spend his college career.

“For me personally, I wanted to play in an environment that’s a good academic place, which was first and foremost for my parents,” says the Allentown native of why he chose NJIT. “I also wanted to have access to the city and the city life, so I felt NJIT had the best of both worlds”.

Although the forward knew he would never even sniff a chance at the NCAA Tournament, Holiday was ready for the challenge.

“I just took it for what it was and it gave me an extra chip on my shoulder to work even harder,” he says. “The mindset going into each season was just to get better as a person on and off the court. Whether we were in a conference or not, I knew that coming to this school was a good opportunity for me.

“I knew that just winning games would be fun an to get the chance to play basketball at a high Division I level was definitely an experience.”

Engles, now in his seventh season with the program, first noticed Holiday at a summer camp back in 2011.

“After we went out to watch him workout with his high school team, him and Jalen (St. Francis of Brooklyn senior and Allen Town native Jalen Cannon) both came down to campus during unofficial visits,” Engles says. “The big thing that really attracted me to [Holiday] was his size and athletic ability. He played with a pretty high motor so he was very active.

“The other intriguing part was that he’s only 20, he’s not even 21 yet, so he was so young that I figured we might be able to get a kid who hasn’t even developed physically yet who could grow a little bit and develop as he gets older and naturally grows into his body.

With only one more guaranteed game remaining in Holiday’s career, his coach still laments the fact that he doesn’t have another year to develop even more due to his young age and the growth he has made as of late.

As a senior, Holiday has started 28 out of 29 games, averaging 5.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 18.3 minutes per game. But according to Engles, Holiday’s improvement and importance to the team can’t be summed up in his numbers.

“Last year we sort of changed the offense around on him and it didn’t quite suit him 100 percent so his numbers dropped a bit, but this year he became very effective,” Engles says. “He’s had a terrific year.”

As senior, Holiday has played some of the best basketball of his career under the brightest lights against NJIT’s biggest opponents, scoring 10 points and pulling down five rebounds against St. John’s, scoring 12 points on a perfect 4-of-4 shooting to go with five boards against Marquette, and adding six points and seven rebounds in a win over Duquesne.

In the Highlanders 72-70 win over then 17th ranked Michigan – the biggest win in program history – Holiday pulled down six rebounds and swatted three shots while tussling with the towering front court of one of the most storied programs in the country.

Holiday’s senior year brought a smile to Engles face as he reminisced back to when he first set foot on campus as a an incredibly young and skinny forward. In a perfect world Engles would have redshirted Holiday, but the Highlanders were desperately in need of bodies at the time.

“It took him a year to get acclimated, but there was a time when I was thinking about redshirting him his freshman year but we just really were in a position when we needed everyone to contribute at one point or another,” Engles says.

And according to Engles, as has been the case throughout his career, Holiday rose to the challenge.

“We went out to Chicago State and he had a huge game. He had like six points on the road, had some huge rebounds and won us the game as a freshman. He had some other contributing games, so you saw that he had a lot of potential and that’s exactly what we hoped to continue to develop with.”

While Holiday’s sophomore and senior year numbers nearly mirror each other, he says that he has also noticed growth in his game, something he attributes to his coaching staff.

“I think my touch around the basket, my left hand, and postgame work all improved,” Holiday says. “Those are all products of my coaching staff helping me out every day in practice and sitting me down and talking to me, it all helps.

The final regular season of Holiday’s career has come to an end – the fourth straight without a chance of an NCAA Tournament berth — but his time in a Highlander jersey is not over yet. On March 16, NJIT will host a first-round matchup in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, the first postseason appearance in program history.

While many around the college world scoff at what they term the “lesser” post season tournaments, to Holiday, making the CIT is an incredibly humbling experience, and one that he will carry with him forever.

“It’s a great feeling, and an honor to be a part of it,” he says. “I know the people that were before me what this means to them as well. Just to have my name on this team and to be a part of this is a very special feeling.”

“It’s everything,” says Engles. “Daquan has been such an integral part for the development of our program, not only from a basketball standpoint. He’s been such a wonderful ambassador for our program on campus.”

When the season does come to an end, Engles knows how huge Holiday’s departure will be.

“He’s one of the nicest kids I’ve ever been around,” says Engles. “He’s just always happy, and has one of those infectious personalities. He’s the type of kid that people on campus come to watch just because they like him so much and want to support him. “He’s gonna be a big loss for us from both a leadership and social standpoint on our team. He’s really become not only a productive basketball player, but a terrific leader.”

When asked what he will miss most about NJIT, Holiday responded with two simple words: “A lot.”

“I’m gonna miss the coaches, because they weren’t just coaches, it was more than just basketball,” he said. “They wanted to see me become a better person so I’m gonna miss that.

But according to Holiday, the memories will always be a part of him, and he wouldn’t trade them for an NCAA Tournament berth or anything else in the world.

“I remember after the Michigan win all the student-athletes met us at the bus. It was 11:00 at night and they met us outside. Just playing basketball at such a high level has been an amazing experience.”

Poor shooting dooms UMass men’s basketball

Poor shooting doomed the UMass men’s basketball team on Wednesday night in an 82-71 home loss against Saint Joseph’s, the Minutemen’s third straight defeat.

The Minutemen, who fell to 16-12 on the year and 9-6 in the Atlantic-10, went 6-of-24 from beyond the arc, shooting an abysmal 33.8 percent from the field. Freshman Donte Clark and redshirt junior Jabarie Hinds, two of the Minutemen’s hot hands in recent games, combined to hit just five of the 21 shots they attempted, including just one three-pointer out of nine attempts.

In the postgame press conference, Minutemen head coach Derek Kellogg acknowledged the shooting performances from both sides as one of the main reasons for the outcome of this contest.

“You can’t go 6-for-24 from the three-point line and then have them go 70 percent,” said Kellogg of the Hawks 9-of-13 performance from downtown. “I think that was a huge difference in the game.”

Perhaps the biggest difference in this contest was the play of Hawks sophomore DeAndre Bembry, who exploded for a career-high 33 points, adding 14 rebounds and four assists along the way.

In the second half alone, St. Joe’s made four of the five threes, with Bembry hitting both long-range shots he took.

UMass finished 23-of-68 from the field, with the foursome consisting of Maxie Esho, Clark, Hinds and Demetrius Dyson attempting 45 shots and only hitting 13.

Entering the night, the Hawks were shooting just 29 percent from three-point range, but Kellog knew Saint Joe’s could get hot from downtown.

“It seems to be the case. Every game you watched on TV was if they shot the three ball well they had a chance to beat teams, and it seems ironic that two of the times were against us,” he said. “I mean, 9-for-13, some of them were open, but Bembry hit one where Demetrius fell and was at his feet and then he hit one in the corner that was tough.

“They got into a rhythm, I thought we got them out of it for a little with our press and then we did defensive rebound two or three times, so hats off to them. (Chris) Wilson hit four threes last game and three tonight, and then (Isaiah) Miles making threes is uncharacteristic for them.”

Although his team was coming off a rough two-game road stretch against University of Rhode Island and Virginia Commonwealth University, Kellogg made it clear that there are no excuses this late into the season.

“I would say we didn’t play our most energized game, a few times we were trying to get into the press and guys were slow getting there,” he said. “Then when they started making plays I thought that deflated us and then to top that off, when you have wide open threes about nine occasions and you don’t make them that can be difficult to withstand.

Added Kellogg, “We’ve played well when we make some threes and then loosen it up and then Maxie and Cady can work it inside, we just didn’t make them tonight.”

Despite the difficult night shooting, the Minutemen still finished with five players in double figures, with senior big man Cady Lalanne recording a double-double of 14 points and thirteen rebounds. Dyson, who logged his own double-double in the previous contest versus VCU, added 12 and seven.

Brendan Casper: Effort is everything

Brendan Casper. Photo Credit: Sideline Photos, LLC / Saint Joseph's Athletics
Brendan Casper. Photo Credit: Sideline Photos, LLC / Saint Joseph’s Athletics

Despite receiving no offers from Division I schools to play basketball, Brendan Casper wasn’t going to giving up on his dreams of playing at the highest level of college basketball.

So instead of taking the safe route and attending a Division II or III school, the sophomore from Audobon, Pennsylvania, decided to stay in state and join the Saint Joseph’s basketball program as a preferred walk-on.

“My dream was always to play Division I, from the time I was a little kid and I started playing,” he says. “I felt that I could compete at this level because I always had confidence in my game. Even though Division I schools didn’t offer me, I still felt I had a good shot at competing, so when the opportunity to came to walk on at St. Joe’s, I wanted to prove everyone wrong and show that I still had a shot at playing.”

Hawks head coach Phil Martelli says there were many qualities about Brendan that he valued as a coach.

“His incredible love of the game of basketball, his desire to improve, and willingness to accept a limited role,” Martelli says when asked what led to offering Casper a spot on the team. “This kid was a high school star and now he’s coming into college and we’re telling him unless there’s some mistakes along the way, there’s not gonna’ be playing time.

“Since he’s been with us, what I admire the most is his willingness to compete and improve.”

In his freshman year with SJU, Casper only appeared in eight games, logging a mere 15 minutes total. But in his second year as a Hawk, he has taken the court in 20 contests, most notably a 20-minute effort on Dec. 6 against Big 5 rival Villanova in which he recorded nine points and nine rebounds, both setting career-highs.

As someone who grew up in the Philadelphia area watching Big 5 basketball, he says that was a game he would never forget.

“It was great, that’s what I worked hard for my entire life to be able to play big minutes in big time games,” Casper says. “I knew the significance of that game and that rivalry. For that to be my first game to put my name on the map and really show that I could play and for all the people that doubted me, for me to have that game, it really boosted my confidence. My family was there so it was a dream come true to have a big game in one of those rivalries.”

Casper has also seen minutes in games this season versus opponents like Gonzaga, Western Kentucky, George Washington and VCU.

“It’s great,” Casper says about the increase in minutes he has received. “I feel great that coach has the trust to play me. I’m in a situation where he needs to play me more in certain situations and I’m always ready. As a sophomore I can keep building off of this year.”

Casper added that unlike most walk-ons who don’t get their chance until late in their careers, he’s excited to gain experience in games and build off it for the future.

Another part of Brendan’s game that is well known is his extremely hard work ethic, which is something he’s always prided himself on.

“I’m not the most athletic player, I’m not the fastest player, but I’m not gonna; let anyone outwork me,” he says. “It’s something that I’ll always play by and even at this level the athleticism is at a different level.

“Everyone told me I wasn’t athletic enough but no one can tell me I can’t out work anybody.”

And that effort has left a big impression on his head coach.

“It motivates you to make sure his experience is really a life-changing one, not just an average one,” says Martelli. “You can always use him as an example for others to say ‘here’s a kid who not only is dedicating himself on the court, but dedicates himself to the classroom.’ He’s a wonderful teammate and a great example for all that’s good about college basketball.”

What people may not know is that this isn’t the first time a Casper has been coached by Martelli: Brendan’s father, Rob, played under Martelli at Bishop Kenrick high School in Norristown, making it to the state championship in 1980.

“It’s pretty cool,” Casper says of the connection. “It’s cool that Phil got to coach my dad and then 30 years later he gets to coach his son. My dad gives me good advice, which is come in, keep your mouth shut and play as hard as you can and everything with work out.”

Despite being related, Martelli said there aren’t many similarities between the two out on the court.

“When I coached Rob, he was probably the most athletic guy that I had coached up until that point in time. The love of basketball was the same, they loved playing the game, they love competing. You want them to grow as players, but you want them to grow as people as well and to create memories for a lifetime.”

When asked about the future, Casper says he’s just focused on improving each year, and is confident that he can help the team.

“Getting these minutes as a sophomore gives me an idea of what exactly I need to improve on moving forward, which is always a good thing,” he says. “Last year playing in practice against all of these players every day was very helpful. But this year getting the game experience and actually feeling what its like to be out there and playing in front of people and on TV and in big games, that’s been a big step up for me and really shows me what I can improve on in the summer.

“I still have two more years and just want to continue helping the team in any way I can.”