Minutemen win in their comfort zone
SPRINGFIELD — It is the birthplace of the sport. It is the birthplace of the coach. It is the place where Derek Kellogg and the University of Massachusetts Minutemen go to find their fire.
In his freshman year in January 1992, Kellogg returned to the hoop womb at a building then called the Springfield Civic Center, and the Minutemen knocked off No. 14 Oklahoma and vaulted into the Top 25 for the first time in program history. As a senior in November 1994, he opened the season as the starting point guard and UMass knocked off defending national champion Arkansas in the Civic Center. Afterward, the Minutemen became the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
Sixteen years later, Kellogg and the UMass team he now coaches returned to what is now called the MassMutual Center. The magic came back with him as the Minutemen recorded a convincing 71-57 triumph over New Mexico State.
“It was great to come back to my hometown and have the guys play the way they did,’’ said Kellogg.
It is the first time in nine seasons that the Minutemen have won their first three games.
Victories over Rider and Sacred Heart didn’t make a statement. New Mexico State was an NCAA Tournament team a year ago. Granted, the Aggies (2-2) had a long trip east after playing at Arizona Thursday night, but according to coach Marvin Menzies, that was not a factor.
“We just got outplayed,’’ he said. “Travel was no excuse for the hurricane that hit us in the first half.’’
Barely five minutes into the game, UMass already had a double-digit lead. At halftime it was 44-23. The Aggies never got it to single digits after intermission.
The Minutemen played their most aggressive defense of the season. They were winning almost all of the 50-50 balls, fighting hard for rebounds, and forcing the action. That play was symbolized in the first half when tiny freshman point guard Daryl Traynham dived headlong into the paint to tie up 6-foot-11-inch, 240-pound B.J. West.
Senior Anthony Gurley led the way with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting. Sophomore Javorn Farrell, who had missed the first two games with an ankle injury, scored a career-high 15 points.
“He was kind of like Dominique Wilkins tonight,’’ said Menzies. “You know what he’s going to do, but you can’t stop him from doing it.’’
Also encouraging for Kellogg was the resurgent play of sophomore forward Terrell Vinson, who had 10 points and a team-high six rebounds.
Menzies was startled by the way UMass broke from the gates, and credited Kellogg for getting his team ready. “I don’t know what his pregame speech was, but I’m going to try to get a copy of it,’’ said Menzies. “Derek is doing a great job here. He’s building it the right way.’’