It’s been a reoccurring theme for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team all season long. At times, it can look rattled and seem destined for a long night. But all it takes is a shift in momentum and the Minutemen unleash.
Such was the case Wednesday night, as UMass (18-6, 7-3 Atlantic 10) shook off a sloppy, turnover-filled 15 minutes to start the game to storm past St. Bonaventure, 76-67, at the Mullins Center to extend its perfect home record to 12-0.
The Minutemen reeled off a pair of dominating runs in the second half – a 14-0 span to start the second half and a 15-0 tear after the Bonnies cut the lead to three midway through the frame – to help outlast the physical SBU (12-9, 5-4 A-10).
After allowing an old-fashioned 3-point play in the winding seconds of the first, Jesse Morgan rattled home a trey at the buzzer, bouncing off the rim and glass before settling inside the hoop. The clutch shot turned out to be a turning point, as UMass cut the deficit to three heading into halftime in a frame that was largely controlled by St. Bonaventure. The Minutemen carried the momentum into the locker room that transitioned into the team’s lights-out execution to start the second half.
“For him to make that 3 gave us a nice boost going into halftime,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “And then for the first, it seemed like, all year we actually got the ball coming out of the half and were able to … put together a mini-run there.”
“It’s definitely a momentum builder,” said Morgan. “Any time a shot [goes] in at half that puts you within three or two, it’s always a momentum builder.”
Morgan was on fire from behind the arc for the entire night, connecting on 6-for-7 attempts from long range for a team-high 24 points. Chaz Williams added 17 points and five assists, as the agile point guard was instrumental in the team’s turnaround in the second half.
Kellogg felt the second-half turnaround had a lot to do with Williams settling into the game and picking his spots to attack the defense.
Coming out of the break, the Minutemen kicked into high gear as Williams converted a lay-in followed by a steal off the inbounds pass by Sean Carter, who kicked the ball to Morgan for a trey to give UMass its first lead since the first 2:09 of the game. After five consecutive points from Terrell Vinson, a pair of free throws from Williams and a Morgan lay-up, a once three-point hole evolved into a 45-34 advantage with 17 minutes to play.
“It was fantastic to see them do that,” said Kellogg. “To see us go on that nice run that continued for a little while was really what sealed the game.”
The Minutemen came out rusty offensively to start the game. Eight turnovers and a number of possessions that settled for contested 3-pointers resulted in a 23-13 deficit in the opening 13:39 of play.
Andrew Nicholson scored at will in the paint for the Bonnies, carrying the visitors with 24 points and nine boards. The senior was a matchup nightmare for UMass, as Kellogg was forced to abandon the man-to-man defense in favor of a zone to help limit his possessions in the paint.
Freshman Maxie Esho stepped up in big fashion, chipping in with nine points on 4-of-9 shooting. But the biggest influence he had on the contest was the energy and hustle he brought to the floor.
Esho said he expects himself to bring energy, rebounds and aggressiveness on the full-court pressure in his minutes on the court.
“I’m getting more confident as the season goes,” he said.
Despite almost giving away a 15-point lead in the final two-and-a-half minutes, the Minutemen were able to hold on and keep pace in the A-10 standings. UMass remains tied for second along with Saint Louis, La Salle and Xavier, with all four squads within a half-game of top-seeded Temple.
The Minutemen head back on the road on Saturday night for a date with Saint Joseph’s.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.