Derek Kellogg

UMass tops VCU in a thriller, avenging losses from previous season

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AMHERST, Mass. – Chaz Williams had had enough of Havoc. In two games against the vaunted VCU defense last season, Williams had compiled as many turnovers as assists, both losses for Minutemen.

The latter of those two defeats, ousted UMass from the Atlantic 10 semifinals. One day later it became easier for the NCAA tournament committee to leave the Minutemen on the cutting room floor while extending bids to five Atlantic 10 opponents.

Williams wasn’t going to let a third one get away, not in front of a sellout crowd at the Mullins Center, or ‘House of Pain’ as he refers to it as in the team’s pregame video; an acronym, which stands for pressure, agitate, interrupt, neutralize . In his 38th minute on the floor, he dug deep in a defensive stand, turning Briante Weber before picking his pocket. Williams would be fouled, and calmly sank two free throws, icing an 80-75 UMass win over VCU on Friday night.

“We bring pain,” Williams said. “We don’t bring no Havoc. That’s their slogan, that’s what they do. We all about pain over here.”

In a fast-paced 40 minutes, VCU and UMass swapped the leads a dozen times, the last of which occurred when Trey Davis, the reserve guard, who struggled as a freshman against VCU, sliced through the lane and pull-up for a mid-range jumper. He altered his body midair, but connected on the go-ahead bucket, giving UMass a 70-68 lead with 4:00 minutes to play.

“He’s a different player,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said. “He’s not the same guy, who we played against last year. … He really gives them a different element when he comes in the game because he can handle the ball.”

After turning the ball over 47 times in two games last season the Minutemen committed 14 turnovers. UMass forced 17 VCU miscues.

“Yeah the turnover margin is plus-three for them,” Smart said. “There are very few teams we faced where we lost the turnover battle. I think some of it was sloppiness on our part. They have the ability and Chaz showed it on the last play. They have the ability to really ratchet up their defense.”

Despite struggling in conference play, where the Minutemen suffered back-to-back losses to St. Bonaventure and St. Joseph’s and a home loss to last-place George Mason, the last week has made it almost a certainty — avoiding a massive collapse — that UMass will in the program’s first NCAA tournament since 1998. The Minutemen gutted out a win in D.C. last Saturday against George Washington and added another good conference win over VCU on Friday night. The last tough draw for UMass will be Mar. 1 against first-place Saint Louis.

A loss last year inside the Barclays Center sent UMass to the NIT, bursting its bubble rather than strengthen its tournament resume. Williams and the Minutemen got redemption over Havoc on Friday night, though the Rams will look for the same thing in the coming weeks, in Brooklyn, in a potential rematch.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.