Massachusetts Coach John Calipari may finally have found the right postseason mixture, and he couldn't have picked a better time to do it.
After failing to advance beyond the second round in the NCAA tournament the last two years despite being a predicted Final Four team, Calipari's Minutemen are at last peaking when it really matters.
In an awesome display of athletic ability, team defense and depth, UMass overwhelmed Tulsa, 76-51, Friday night at the Meadowlands Arena to advance into Sunday's East Regional final against Oklahoma State.
"It feels good to know that we won like we did, but the atmosphere in our locker room is not like we've accomplished anything yet," UMass forward Lou Roe said. "All year, our goal was for higher things than this, and we're not going to be satisfied until we get there."
In winning its three tournament games, UMass (29-4) has outscored opponents, 219-155, for an average victory margin of 21 points, and its starters have not played in the last five minutes any of those times.
Defensively, the Minutemen held St. Peter's to 38.9% shooting and Stanford to 34.5%, then really got serious and limited Tulsa to 27%.
"They just contested every shot . . . every pass," said Tulsa Coach Tubby Smith, whose team lost to eventual national champion Arkansas in last year's Sweet 16. "We obviously struggled from the floor. If we had shot better, maybe the game would have been different."
The big man for UMass, which had nine dunks and nine blocked shots against the Golden Hurricane, was Marcus Camby, an improving 6-foot-11 sophomore center.
While Wake Forest's Tim Duncan and Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves received most of the attention as the top centers in the East Regional, Camby made his statement with 20 points, nine rebounds, five blocked shots and two steals in 22 minutes.
"He is a tremendous player, whose presence alone in the lane stops a lot of shots inside," said guard Shea Seals, the only Golden Hurricane to score in double figures, with 19 points. "He runs the floor so well. He runs it like a point guard out there. He gets out quicker than anybody."
UMass took an 18-9 lead midway through the first half and stretched it to 42-24 at halftime, as Camby had 13 points and six rebounds.
Tulsa (24-8), which had reached the Sweet 16 behind its up-tempo offense, could not find an easy way to score against UMass' pressure defense. The Golden Hurricane shot 29% in the first half, while the Minutemen made half of their 34 shots, including three three-pointers.
"Our defense was great in that we swarmed well," said Calipari, whose team has not allowed an opponent to score more than 57 points in its last seven games. "We rebounded above the rim but we were sluggish at the beginning of the second half, and that's something we're going to have to work out for Sunday. But it was nice to see we could put it all together."
Because of Calipari's liberal substitutions, UMass struggled some with its inside players --except for Camby. Roe, who entered the game as the team's second-leading scorer, finished with eight points, and forward Dana Dingle was held to three points.
UMass' backcourt, however, was able to keep the pressure on Tulsa. The Minutemen's unheralded group of guards--Edgar Padilla, Derek Kellogg and Carmelo Travieso--combined for 23 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, with one turnover.
"Every game we go into, our guards are always overlooked," said Travieso, who made three three-pointers and finished with nine points and six rebounds. "On Sunday, we'll probably be underdogs again because Oklahoma State has a good backcourt, but we'll show up and hopefully prove people wrong again."