As the two teams went through the traditional post-game handshake line following Dayton’s 72-67 victory over Massachusetts, Sunday, at UD Arena, UMass coach Matt McCall didn’t bother to extend a hand to two Flyers.
Instead, he hugged them both — tightly.
He first greeted UD coach Anthony Grant with a hearty embrace. Then, at the end of the line, he came upon Flyers’ point guard Jalen Crutcher, who’d scored 19 points and hit the final, go-ahead shot, a three-pointer from the top of the key with 70 seconds left.
McCall wrapped his arms around the UD sophomore and spoke earnestly to him.
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Later, after most of the Minutemen players had showered, changed and headed up the Arena ramp to the waiting bus, McCall stepped out of the dressing room and managed to eclipse the disappointment from the loss with a sincere appreciation of two Flyers who mean something special to him.
If McCall hadn’t left the University of Tennessee Chattanooga for UMass before last season, Crutcher admitted Sunday he would not be the Flyers point guard:
“Yeah, I’d be at Chattanooga right now.”
He said McCall had begun recruiting him when he was a sophomore at Ridgeway High School in Memphis and the two had developed a bond:
“He’d always come to my house on weekends. He’d drive down and just chill. We were real close. That’s the reason I signed with Chattanooga.”
But in late March of 2017, McCall took the UMass job. Sheila Crutcher, Jalen’s mom, spotted the news on social media and quickly sent a text message to her unsuspecting son, who was in class.
The coach’s departure threw Crutcher for a loop and at first he didn’t know what to do.
McCall’s tone seemed somewhat apologetic as he talked about that Sunday: “As a coach, it’s hard to explain to a family and a young man that you’re taking a different job. Sometimes they just don’t understand everything involved…”
But, he said, one good thing has come from it:
“Jalen couldn’t be playing for a better coach now, a better human being, than Anthony Grant. There is no one better in the business and I know a lot of people.”
When Grant was an assistant coach at the University of Florida, McCall was a student manager for the Gators for three seasons and then joined the coaching staff as a grad assistant for two seasons.
“Even when I was a manager, he treated me with such class,” McCall said. “That’s how he handles himself in every situation he’s in.
“As a graduate assistant, you’re kind of drawn to a coach on the staff and I was always drawn to Anthony because of the kind of person he is. I owe my approach to being an assistant coach to him. I saw how he did it first-hand.
“And when he took over at VCU, he offered me my first job. But Billy (then Florida coach Billy Donovan) called me and offered me the same job.
“And when I first took over at Chattanooga, I dealt with a lot of things Anthony dealt with when he had been at VCU. I called him often and he became a great resource for me. That’s why I’m happy for him now. He’s teamed back up with Donnie Jones (a Florida assistant back then, too) and he’s back at his alma mater. It’s unbelievable how it’s worked out.”
Grant took over the UD job about the same time McCall moved to UMass.
“When we walked into the situation we were in last year, we needed a guard,” Grant said.
Although it was late and almost all high school seniors of note were signed elsewhere, Crutcher suddenly was available.
McCall said he’d been “shocked” when he was recruiting Crutcher that more schools weren’t after him. One school that had been in the mix was Murray State, where James Kane had been an assistant before joining Grant’s UD staff.
Grant said Kane’s connections with Crutcher paved the way for UD’s quick recruitment of him.
Seven games into his freshman season last year Crutcher won the starting point guard job and ended up averaging 9.2 points per game.
This season he’s averaging 13.6 points per game, second on the Flyers. He leads the Atlantic 10 Conference in assists per game (6.1) and is second in the league in three pointers made and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Sunday, he shared the spotlight with fellow sophomore guard Jordan Davis, who, along with playing a smothering defense on UMass’s Luwane Pipkins – a 19.5 ppg scorer who managed just five points – led UD with 21 points.
It was the second game in a row Davis has led UD in scoring. Wednesday night his 25 points – on 7-for-11 shooting from three-point range – lifted the Flyers to a 72-68 victory at George Washington.
Against UMass, Davis was 6 for 8 from beyond the arc.
Over the last two games he’s shot 72.2 percent from three-point range. Prior to that he was making just 25.4 percent of his threes.
Grant – whose team is now 11-5 and has won six straight – praised both of his young guards after Sunday’s game and especially made note of Crutcher’s growth this year:
“Last year was a great learning experience for him. You could see the growth almost from game to game. And that allowed him to step out with great confidence this year. He’s pretty much seen everything at this point.
“Last year some of the pressure he saw tonight would have worn him down. He was able to sustain that tonight and down the stretch he made some huge plays for us.”
With about 3 ½ minutes left in the game and UD leading, 65-63, the Minutemen’s 6-foot-11, 310-pound Rashaan Holloway had the ball knocked away from him and it went out of bounds near the UMass bench. Officials called it UD’s ball, but McCall argued Holloway had been fouled.
Crutcher happened be standing right there, too, and smilingly chimed in: “I was saying ‘Naah’ it wasn’t a foul. I was just messing with him. We were joking…He was talking to me the whole game.”
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McCall agreed: “I had some good dialogues with him out there. He’s a great kid. He’s always got a smile on his face. I’m sure he brings a certain level of energy and enthusiasm to this program. Our program needs a lot more enthusiasm, a lot more energy, like his.”
Crutcher said he was inspired playing against McCall:
“Playing against my former coach – well, not my former coach but a guy who was almost my former coach – that gave me a little edge to try to play real good.”
He did and McCall – who first noticed Crutcher in one of his camps at Chattanooga – wasn’t surprised:
“One of the first things that drew me to him was the great feel he showed on the court. An elite feel. He has this ability to play the game the right way.”
McCall shared that appreciation in his post-game exchange.
“When he hugged me, he said he was proud of me and everything I was doing,” Crutcher said.
And a pride like that doesn’t warrant a simple handshake.
It deserves the warm embrace it got.