The drought is now over.
For the first time in eight seasons, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team defeated an opponent in the Atlantic 10 tournament, as the Minutemen (12-19, 5-11 A-10) upset Charlotte on Tuesday night, 59-56, at Halton Arena.
Eleventh-seeded UMass will now head to Atlantic City to take on No. 3 Richmond on Friday night at 9 p.m.
“It was a hard fought game by our players,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “It’s about the team and players, it’s about Ricky [Harris] playing the way he has down the stretch.”
Harris led all scorers with 24 points, including hitting his first four shots of the game, going 5-of-13 from the field and 11-of-12 from the free-throw line.
“It’s a great feeling right now,” Harris said. “It’s a great win in a hostile environment against a great team that is well coached, and the win on the road is big for us. Now, we have to take it to Atlantic City, and hopefully carry it over.”
While Harris led the game in scoring, the Minutemen won on the defensive side of the floor, as they caused the sixth-seeded 49ers (19-12, 9-7 A-10) into shooting 35 percent in the second half and 37 percent for the game, while causing five turnovers.
“That’s the thing I’ve been preaching all year, and I didn’t think we played well on the offensive end, but we grinded it out,” Kellogg said of his team’s defensive performance. “It’s been a long time coming, but we toughed it out for a win and made some plays down the stretch.”
UMass shot 32 percent from the field and went 7-of-32 from 3-point range, but converted from the free-throw line with 18-of-22 shots.
With the loss, the 49ers will be hard pressed to make the NCAA tournament, losing seven of their last eight games.
The Minutemen were up one when freshman Javorn Farrell blocked a shot from Derrio Green against the backboard, causing a jump ball in the possession of UMass with just under a minute and a half left in regulation.
Freshman forward Terrell Vinson then hit a jumper to give the Minutemen a 54-51 lead with 50 seconds left.
The 49ers called a timeout and went on to the court with six players, resulting in a technical foul, with Harris making both free throws to put the Minutemen up five.
A quick 3 by Gokhan Sirin cut the 49er deficit to two with 46 seconds to play, but Harris again hit two more free throws to put UMass up 58-54.
After a quick Charlotte basket, Vinson hit one of two free throws, and Hashim Bailey grabbed the rebound to seal the victory after a one-and-one miss from DiJuan Harris.
Along with Harris, Sean Carter added seven points and seven rebounds, while Terrell Vinson and Bailey both added six points in the victory.
Freshman Freddie Riley added a 3-pointer, while Farrell added five points and four assists.
“It’s unbelievable, and it’s a pleasure to watch them,” Harris said of his young teammates. “I wish I had another year, because next year they will be a good team with well-rounded individuals.”
The 49ers were led by An’Juan Wilderness (11 pts) and Ian Andersen (10 pts), while Shamari Spears and Phil Jones each had eight.
UMass fell to the 49ers 72-58 back on Jan. 30, and lost to the Spiders 70-63 in an overtime contest on Jan. 13.
In 2008, the third-seeded Minutemen fell to the sixth-seeded 49ers, 69-65, in the the A-10 quarterfinals, after earning a first round bye.
“We have good kids, and when things aren’t going well, they work hard and persevere, they have tremendous attitudes and have stayed up beat,” Kellogg said.
That optimism has brought UMass back to Atlantic City for the second time this season, not for the Legends Classic it played earlier this year, but a shot at the A-10 title.
David Brinch can be reached at email@example.com.