Five minutes into the second half, it seemed like the Massachusetts men’s basketball team had forgotten to show up.
After all, Siena was dominating the paint, handling UMass’ full-court pressure without difficulty and keeping the Minutemen from getting out in transition as the Saints built a 10-point lead.
That all changed in the matter of minutes.
UMass put together a 14-3 run over a 3:59 span to turn its double-digit deficit into a 55-54 advantage, thanks in large part to the efforts of Freddie Riley, Chaz Williams and Raphiael Putney as the Minutemen won a nail-biter, 82-78.
It was Riley who was the spark plug, followed by big shots from Putney and a tremendous closing effort from Williams.
Riley got UMass (8-3) going with his season-high 20-point effort, including a trio of 3-pointers during its hot streak. The junior was on fire from downtown all night long, connecting on an astounding 6-for-11 shots from behind the arc.
Early on, it was Riley who kept the Minutemen in the game. Siena’s zone defense slowed down the pace of the contest and forced a barrage of 3-point attempts, holding an explosive UMass offensive to a mere 35 points in the first half.
Riley – who has had a shaky and inconsistent start to the season – was hot from the get-go and after sinking the go-ahead 3, let out a huge scream as he took in the moment.
“I was just happy to be making shots finally and [to] be helping my team,” said Riley. “So I was just playing my role and the shots went in tonight so I’m thankful for that.”
He wasn’t the only one happy to see his shots going in. Williams and the rest of the team have been encouraging Riley during his tough start to the season and were encouraged to see him find success.
“Fred played an amazing game and you know, these past couple of days in practice, he’d been getting down on himself because he had missed [shots],” said Williams. “Everybody on the team would just tell him, ‘Just keep shooting. That’s what you do and that’s the type of player you are.’ And he’s a great player and today he performed not all the way that I feel he can play, but it was good enough for the victory.”
The momentum then shifted to Putney, who threw down a thunderous one-handed slam in transition and later added three consecutive floaters in the paint, part of his 13-point night.
Williams takes over
The last three minutes proved to be Williams’ show.
The sophomore was getting to the basket with ease in the final minutes, as the 5-foot-9 point guard carved his way to the rim and scored 11 of the Minutemen’s final 13 points. He finished with a team-high 22 points, 20 of which came in the second half.
Williams struggled early on, with his first field goal coming in the final second of the first half. He turned it on when he needed to, however, as Williams took advantage of a tired Siena team that was only rotating seven players compared to UMass’ nine.
“Coach and my teammates have a lot of confidence in me and I just look to them … to keep me going,” said Williams. “They just told me, ‘Just keep playing hard. Keep working hard.’”
The Patriots did an excellent job of dictating the tempo of the game in the first half. In fact, Siena was the team getting points in transition, which has been the Minutemen’s bread and butter throughout the year. Couple that with its 24-16 advantage in the paint in the opening frame and it was clear that Siena was in control.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg felt his team was “out-scrapped” in the first half, but credited Williams with lighting a fire in his teammates to push them out of their early funk.
“I thought … his verbal-like intensity or energy-giving was good for the team,” said Kellogg.
He also added that the first half was not played at a pace that his team is comfortable and most successful in.
“I just thought that it took a while for us to kind of get the flow of the game where it needed to be,” said Kellogg. “We never totally turned it over the way I would like, but we got it enough where the game had a little pace to it.”
The Minutemen changed the tide in the second half, outscoring the Patriots 22-12 in the paint and added 16 points off of eight turnovers en route to its second straight win decided by five points or less.
UMass doesn’t return to action until Dec. 17 when it kicks off a four-game home stand at the Mullins Center against Quinnipiac.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.