WORCESTER, Mass. -- Massachusetts played yesterday to win a reputation and Syracuse to lose one, which explained their encounter in the second round of the NCAA East Regional.
Massachusetts (30-4), alma mater of Julius Erving but still ignored, making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 30 years, vs. Syracuse (22-10), Big East power, derided for unfulfilled expectations, trying to avoid another early NCAA exit.
The game was played with ferocious desperation. Passes disappeared in a thicket of hands. Rebounds were batted once, twice, three times before somebody hauled in the ball. Drives to the basket drew thudding contact. If scores of shots didn't fall, plenty of bodies did.
When it was over, UMass had prevailed, 77-71, in overtime, through the unlikeliest of circumstances, a three-point shot by center Harper Williams, who had made one three-pointer all season.
"We feel we belong here," said Williams. "We feel we can break any other team."
The Minutemen, No. 3 seed in the regional, are short but relentless on the boards. They had 19 offensive rebounds yesterday, six by Williams. They can run, they can play under control, they can hit free throws down the stretch.
And they don't mind an occasional bit of luck, either.
With 35 seconds left in overtime, and UMass ahead 72-71, the ball rolled out of bounds and was awarded after some dispute to the Minutemen. The shot clock was running down. UMass had five seconds to inbound and shoot.
With the 45-second clock nearly exhausted, the ball ended up in the hands of UMass forward William Herndon. He is a wondrous leaper at 6 feet 3, but Herndon's in no danger of becoming a point guard. He had no idea how much time was left.
"Give me the ball," Williams screamed.
Herndon gave him the ball.
The shot clock was perilously near expiration now. A turnover seemed inevitable. The ball was in the hands of the guy least prepared and least likely to shoot a three-pointer. Williams is a 6-7 center. Centers don't shoot three-pointers. Williams was having enough trouble with two-pointers. Of the 18 shots he took yesterday, 12 missed.
He had attempted five three-pointers this season and made one. His sixth carried the weight of an entire season.
"Time was running out; I figured I had to shoot," Williams said. "I wasn't going to let our team lose because of the shot clock."
So he threw up a hurried, left-handed shot. It went in. Thirty seconds left. UMass was up 75-71. It was over.
If everyone else in the building seemed surprised that the shot fell, Williams didn't. He practices three-pointers every day during a shooting drill. For one minute, he shoots as many three-pointers as he can.
"I am a three-point shooter," Williams said. "I made another one this season."