As the clock turned to all zeros, Chaz Williams jumped into the arms of Sean Carter as the electric Mullins Center rejoiced.
It was a gritty, grind-it-out contest where each team refused to give in. But it was the Massachusetts men’s basketball team that punched its ticket to the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals in Atlantic City, N.J., with a 92-83 victory last night over Duquesne.
With the game knotted at 78 apiece, UMass converted clutch free throws and locked in on the defensive end in the last five minutes of play to finish the contest on a 14-5 run. The Minutemen sunk 8-for-9 attempts at the charity stripe in the final minute and 14 seconds while not allowing a single point during the final stretch.
“We went to the free throw line and knocked them down and we didn’t give Duquesne as many easy, open ones in the last four or five minutes to give them hope,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg.
The Mullins Center was rumbling down the stretch. The Minutemen responded to the deafening crowd with one defensive stop after another and guard Javorn Farrell believes the crowd gave the team a lift.
“It made it feel kind of like a high school environment in a rivalry game … so when that goes on, you don’t even get tired,” said Farrell. “Your adrenaline is just rushing and you just want to go out there and make plays.”
Farrell’s influence was seen all over the court, scoring a season-high 20 points and dishing out a career-best nine assists in 31 minutes of action. He also locked in defensively and helped UMass stone Duquesne down the stretch.
The game went back-and-forth the entire way as no team could create separation. The Dukes took a 78-73 lead after a Mike Talley lay-up with 6:03 remaining in the game. But UMass responded on the next possession as Williams found Terrell Vinson all alone on the left wing and buried a 3-pointer to bring the Minutemen within two.
“I actually thought they were [going to] escape from us a little bit,” said Vinson. “I think we turned it up in the last two minutes.”
Less than a minute later, Farrell tied it at 78.
The Dukes’ comeback bid took a serious hit after B.J. Monteiro fouled out at the 1:14 mark and then struck the basket in frustration to earn a technical foul, putting the Minutemen at the line for four shots.
The scene then almost took a disastrous turn when a bottle flew from the student section in Monteiro’s direction, prompting Monteiro to take a step towards the crowd before being restrained by teammates. With the technical free throws, the margin turned to a two-possession game at 87-83.
In its previous games at the Mullins Center, UMass mounted a run to pull away from the opposition, but not in this one. Neither team led by more than six in the second half until the final 38 seconds when the Dukes were forced to foul. The Minutemen held the largest lead of the game midway through the first half at 29-18, but was cut to a one-possession game just two and a half minutes later.
“We got up early and then from that point on, it was really nip-and-tuck the whole way through,” said Kellogg. “They never got up too many, we never were really able to pull away and that’s just a testament to March Madness and March basketball.”
After scoring just five points in the first half, Williams took over the second half, finishing with a team-high 21 points. The point guard shot a near-perfect 13-for-14 from the charity stripe.
Eric Evans and Kadeem Pantophlet led a balanced effort for Duquesne, each scoring 16 points in the game. Monteiro added 13 while two other Dukes finished with a dozen.
The Dukes appeared to be heading into halftime with all the momentum. Raphiael Putney had just picked up a flagrant foul, giving Duquesne two shots and the ball trailing by three.
But after Sean Johnson knocked down a pair of free throws, Jesse Morgan pick-pocketed T.J. McConnell and went the length of the court and finished with a finger-roll and drew a foul. The play turned what could have been a tie game into a five-point lead.
With the win, the Minutemen earn a trip to the A-10 quarterfinals with a rematch against Temple. UMass dropped a heartbreaker to the Owls last week, 90-88, in overtime on Feb. 29.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.