The Massachusetts men’s basketball team was almost there.
A big second half comeback, improved shooting, and stout defense nearly came together for the Minutemen against Xavier Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.
UMass (8-14, 2-6 Atlantic 10), however, couldn’t hold off a strong shooting performance from Musketeers (16-6, 8-1 A-10) guard Jordan Crawford, falling 87-79 on Leaman Legacy Night.
Crawford, the leading scorer in the A-10, scored a game-high 25 points, going 8-for-15 from the field and 5-of-8 from deep.
“I thought that was a good Atlantic 10 battle, Xavier was really good in the first half, pulling out to a 17-point halftime lead,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “Our guys regrouped at halftime and put a little scare into them, and I thought we played tough and really made plays and shared the basketball.”
The Minutemen started firing on all cylinders at the beginning of the second half, causing three steals in the first four minutes while shooting 5-for-7 on the other end of the court. UMass went on an 12-2 run with two 3-pointers from senior guard Ricky Harris, one from junior guard Gary Correia and a three-point play from redshirt junior Hashim Bailey.
Harris had 24 points, going 11-of-20 from the field, but struggled from beyond the arc, going just 2-of-8 from 3-point range.
“That was as good as he’s played in the second half all year,” Kellogg said. “He shared the basketball, he was working and scrapping on defense, and at times I thought he was the best player on the floor in that half.”
Correia, as well as Harris, saw extensive time at the point guard position, as sophomore David Gibbs broke his foot in Monday’s practice and will likely be out the remainder of the season.
Harris made a lay-up in transition to tie the game at 62, followed by a made free-throw from Anthony Gurley to put the Minutemen up one with nearly seven and a half minutes to play.
Both teams exchanged leads eight times over the next three minutes, but Green put the game out of reach with back-to-back 3’s followed by a three-point play by forward Jamel McLean (14 points, 11 rebounds) that put the game out of reach quickly for UMass.
Kellogg started three freshmen against the Musketeers, including forwards Terrell Vinson and Javorn Farrell and guard Freddie Riley. Riley added 10 points, while Farrell and Vinson added 12 and 11 respectively.
The Minutemen were outrebounded, 36-32, by the Musketeers, but shot a respectable 43 percent from the field.
After tough losses against two of the best teams in the league, the Minutemen face Rhode Island on Saturday.
“The league this year is as good as it’s ever been,” Kellogg said. “Top to bottom, I don’t know when it’s ever been this good, they have six teams in our league in the NCAA tournament,” Kellogg said.
The Minutemen have not won a conference game at home since Jan. 6, when they defeated Fordham, 78-76.
Even with the way UMass played down the stretch, Kellogg wants to see his team’s hard work turn into victories.
“I’m going to keep preaching to my guys, we can’t settle for not coming out on top, but at the same token, it is a little bit of a process right now,” Kellogg said.
David Brinch can be reached at email@example.com.