A look back: UM refuses to lose till the end

Minutemen’s effort widely praised in loss

  • Massachusetts center Marcus Camby is comforted on the bench after his team's 81-74 loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Final Four semifinals Saturday, March 30, 1996, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) KATHY WILLENS—ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • FILE - In this March 30, 1996 file photo, Massachusetts center Marcus Camby, center, is jammed by Kentucky forward Walter McCarty, left, and guard Wayne Turner during the second half of their semifinal game at the Final Four of the NCAA college basketball tournament in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke, File) ED REINKE—AP

  • Massachusetts' Marcus Camby reacts wtih the bench during second half NCAA Final Four action Saturday, March 30, 1996 in East Rutherford, N.J. UMass lost to Kentucky 81-74. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) ELISE AMENDOLA—ASSOCIATED PRESS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/30/2020 3:59:30 PM

Editor’s note: With the NCAA Tournament canceled, the Gazette looks back to when UMass made its run to the 1996 Final Four. Here is the game story from UMass’ loss to Kentucky on March 30, 1996. This story appeared in the Gazette on April 1, 1996.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Perhaps the perfect ending to this glorious basketball season would have been a national championship. That, after all, was the goal, the passionate, against-all-odds quest of a group of young men from the University of Massachusetts.

But perhaps not. Maybe Saturday night’s 81-74 loss to mighty Kentucky at the Meadowlands was the ideal way to say goodbye. There was something ennobling about this one, a great effort against a supremely talented team that just came up short. Like all great acts, the Minutemen left their fans wanting just a little bit more. The team that had inspired so many people in victory melted plenty of hearts in defeat.

“I may never have another year with a group of young men who are this smart, this strong, have this much character and this much respect for each other,” said an emotionally drained UMass coach John Calipari. “This is my eighth year as a head coach. This is my 15th year of coaching, and I played a lot of basketball. Never have I been around a team like this.”

Calipari’s pride was almost matched by that of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who opened his post-game comments by saying, “First, I’d like to say I’m an alumnus of Massachusetts (’74). I’m proud of our ball club, but as an alumnus of that school, why, I can’t say enough of that team.”

While Pitino’s powerhouse moves on to tonight’s national title game against surprising Syracuse, UMass starts sifting through the memories of a 35-2 season. The Minutemen had their best-ever year, and finished with the top record of any Division 1 team in America.

“It’s been an honor to be a part of this team,” said point guard Edgar Padilla.

In the end, when the Minutemen went down, they did so in their truest spirit – refusing to lose until the clock ran out. The Minutemen kept surging back in the second half, cutting a 15- point lead to three, and, later, chopping a 10-point lead again to three.

“Everybody has written about it and talked about it, about the character of these guys on UMass and how tough they are,” said Kentucky center Mark Pope. “You can’t blow them out. They’re too big and strong and poised and tough.”

Kentucky, though, showed the same qualities. A team that had been challenged so rarely during the year, proved to be more than just a great assembly of talent. The Wildcats showed the composure and heart to finish the deal.

“They’re a great ball club, and they proved that tonight,” said UMass center Marcus Camby.

Playing perhaps his final game as a Minuteman (with his NBA decision pending), Camby lived up to his Player of the Year billing. He scored a game-high 25 points, pulled down eight rebounds and blocked six shots.

Camby’s numbers aside, the Wildcats did a good job of finding ways to prevent him from dominating the game as he had in UMass’ victory over Kentucky back in November. The Wildcats doubled down with great speed and aggressiveness, neutralizing Camby’s passing game. On the other end, the Wildcats brought their big men out on the floor to force Camby out of the lane, opening the way for them to post-up UMass guards. Tony Delk was particularly effective with 20 points, mostly on power moves.

The Minutemen had plenty of struggles. Carmelo Travieso was saddled with foul trouble, denying the Minutemen a great perimeter defender and their top outside scorer. Dana Dingle missed eight critical first-half minutes, getting stitched up after getting gashed in the lip. Kentucky’s defense caused 19 turnovers and often forced UMass to begin its half-court offense too far from the basket.

“We were going to suffocate them at every level,” said Pitino. “We were not going to let them see an option.”

Further, the Minutemen were not able to find an edge in the rebounding and loose-ball battles they usually dominate.

“The plays we normally make we weren’t making,” Calipari said. “You have to give them credit, though. Maybe it’s because they were so good we couldn’t make the plays.”

It looked for a while, though, that the Minutemen might make enough plays to pull off the comeback. Sparked by aggressive bench play from Giddel Padilla, UMass scrapped back.

Donta Bright (15 points) got going and Camby began to assert himself. UMass’ final surge brought the Minutemen within 73-70 when Edgar Padilla knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:02 left.

Kentucky didn’t panic, though, attacking the basket instead of milking the clock. Ultimately the Wildcats just proved too good, too quick, too determined.

For UMass, it was too bad. A year that had started with a dramatic win over Kentucky ended with a dramatic loss to the same club. The Minutemen’s stirring season was over.

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