A big win over a consistently strong opponent can rejuvenate a team, especially if that team – like the Massachusetts men’s basketball team – is in the midst of a losing streak.
And last night at the Mullins Center, the Minutemen might have earned that big win.
Coming off of its first losing streak of the season at two games, UMass (19-8, 8-5 Atlantic 10) reeled off an 80-73 victory over the Musketeers on Tuesday night at the Mullins Center to hop right back into the thick of the A-10 race for a first round bye in the conference tournament. The Minutemen currently sit in third place in the A-10 with the top four teams earning a pass to Atlantic City, N.J., for the second round.
The Minutemen capitalized on yet another opportunity to rise to the challenge against a very formidable and nationally recognized program in Xavier; their first win over the Musketeers since 2006.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg felt the win was another step in the right direction for the team and the type of program he’s hoping to build.
“I thought tonight was one more opportunity for the program to play well, have a signature team come in and have a nice fan base,” he said. “And that’s kind of what I’ve envisioned since I came here was a night like this.”
Chaz Williams had one his best nights in a Minutemen uniform with his game-high 29 points, lighting it up from downtown at a tune of 6-for-8 and going a perfect 7-for-7 from the charity stripe. The sophomore also dished out a game-high nine assists in his 38 minutes on the floor.
On the other side, Xavier point guard Tu Holloway couldn’t establish any sort of rhythm offensively against the relentless combination of Jesse Morgan and Freddie Riley, limiting arguably the A-10’s most explosive point guard to a mere 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting. The pair of guards spent the entire night chasing Holloway and keeping full attention on the senior’s whereabouts.
Riley was proud of his effort on the defensive end and even was a little surprised on how well he did.
“He’s the best player on their team and one of the best point guards in the conference so my biggest focus when I got into the game was to just control him as much as I could,” he said. “I did a better job than I thought I was [going to] do, but I was just trying to keep him from having a big game and it worked.”
The junior, who has struggled to find a consistent role coming off the bench, played with the confidence and poise that fans will typical of seeing last season. Riley was very smart with his shots, pouring in 4-for-9 attempts for 12 points in 22 minutes.
Last time out against La Salle, he had one of his worst outings of the season in his two point, 1-for-5 shooting night in which some looks didn’t even come close.
“That was good to see [because], you know, Freddie’s been up and down a little bit,” said Kellogg. “And to see him come out and help us in, what I would say, was one of the biggest games of the season. It was nice to see that he hadn’t really given up on his playing time for the season that he’s [going to] fight and continue to help the team.”
Despite 10 turnovers in the opening four minutes, 34 seconds, the Musketeers held a 21-16 advantage with 8:41 left to play in the first half. UMass finally started to get its groove going thanks in large part to the sudden scoring outburst of Raphiael Putney. The sophomore hit consecutive 3-pointers – part of his 13-point night – that ignited an electric 25-8 Minutemen run to end the half.
UMass pushed its lead to 20 after a Riley lay-in with 11:58 remaining in the game to mark its biggest lead of the night. After Xavier cut the deficit on two occasions, Williams provided the dagger with a pair of clutch shots from behind the arc to cement the win.
The Minutemen hit the road for two crucial games with A-10 tournament-seeding implications at Dayton on Saturday and No. 22 Temple on Feb. 29.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.