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UMass Ready To Dance: ‘It’s No Fluke That We’re Here’

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UMass point guard Chaz Williams. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

UMass point guard Chaz Williams. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

BOSTON (CBS) — The UMass Minutemen are dancing for the first time in 16 years, and they’re ready for what they hope is a long NCAA tournament run.

The sixth-seeded Minutemen play their first tournament game since 1998 Friday afternoon when they take on 11th-seeded Tennessee in Raleigh, North Carolina. It brings back great memories for head coach Derek Kellogg, who was UMass’ point guard when the school was making annual trips to the big dance in the early-to-mid 90’s.

Kellogg took over his alma mater in 2008, and was confident he could get UMass back to the promised land.

“My vision and view when I took over six years ago was this day,” he said on Selection Sunday. “Now we have an opportunity to play in an NCAA tournament, and continue to make the state of Massachusetts proud.”

“It’s a testament for all the hard work that has gone into the program the last six years since I got here,” he said. “Being a player and an alum, the place where I’m from, it’s exiting for me to get our program back where it belongs; which is in the NCAA tournament and one of the top programs on the national level.”

Led by star point guard Chaz Williams, who averaged a team-high 15.8 points and seven assists per game, UMass went 24-8 overall and 10-6 in A-10 play. They began the season winning 10 straight and 16 of their first 17, including impressive victories over tournament teams BYU, New Mexico, Nebraska, Providence and St. Joseph’s.

They came back to earth a bit as the season came to a close, losing seven of their last 15 games, but secured their spot in the tournament with a win over URI in the A-10 tournament. But with their quality victories early in the season, the selection committee rewarded them with a six-seed in the tournament.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Williams said of the season. “Ups and downs, a little tough for us a times but we fought through adversity and we stuck it out. We never gave up on each other and knew no matter what I did or no matter what our teammates did we were always there behind each other. We kept our strong will and kept fighting.”

“People always said UMass hasn’t been to the tournament for awhile, and we were tired of hearing that. We wanted to get back and do some great things to bring the love back to Amherst,” said Williams. “We’re happy to be here, but it’s not just that. We’re never satisfied, and we’re always trying to win.”

The Globe’s Michael Whitmer Talks NCAA Tourney on Toucher & Rich: 

UMass and Tennessee will tip off at 2:45 p.m. on Friday, and Kellogg knows plenty about the Volunteers. He has last year’s  83-69 loss to Tennessee in the Puerto Rico Tip Off fresh on his mind, and is prepared for a tough defensive battle.

But UMass is not short on confidence as they’ve soaked in the sights of the tournament over the last few days.

“It’s no fluke that we’re here,” said senior center Sampson Carter. “We really are a talented team and we really do work hard. We’re ready.”

“It’s a chance for us to show the whole country what the UMass program is made of,” said Kellogg. “Our team, I believe, is a fun team to watch. We have a lot of young men you’d like to hang out with, and we’re a team that is hungry. We have a lot to prove, and we’re going to go out there and give it our best.”

You can see UMass-Tennessee on WBZ-TV on Friday at 2:45 pm!

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