ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – When Jesse Morgan iced the game with a pair of free throws, he completed an improbable second-half surge in which the Massachusetts men’s basketball team played arguably its best half of the season in its biggest moment – the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals.
UMass (22-10) completed a 180-degree turn from its sloppy first half to a lights-out second half in which the Minutemen strung together dominating runs to start and the end the final frame to soar past No. 21 Temple, 77-71, on Friday afternoon at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
From the opening tip, UMass was off its game. The Minutemen shot just 38 percent from the field including 3-for-9 from behind the arc and 4-for-8 from the free throw line. But UMass coach Derek Kellogg struck a cord with his squad at halftime and felt his team’s toughness was a huge factor in the Minutemen’s first-half slump.
“I thought it was a toughness thing,” said Kellogg. “I thought if we could rebound the basketball, make free throws and not turn the ball over and match their toughness, I thought we’d have a chance in the second half and I’m happy that our guys played with a little more toughness and a little more edge in the second half.”
UMass clearly got the message as it stormed out of the locker room on a 15-0 run to turn a five-point halftime deficit into a 48-38 advantage. Morgan — who spent most of the first half on the bench with two fouls — ignited the run with a 3-pointer on the Minutemen’s opening possession of the half and a jumper to tie the game.
A pair of 3s by Raphiael Putney and Terrell Vinson gave UMass its first lead since the first four minutes of the game. The exclamation point came as Chaz Williams grabbed a steal and lobbed an alley-oop to Sean Carter, who slammed it home to give the Minutemen their 10-point lead.
The Owls appeared rattled in response to UMass’ intensity. The Minutemen were all over the floor, deflecting passes and creating turnovers (14 in the second half), which led to easy buckets.
“We sucked the air out of us and gave the oxygen right to UMass, and then it just compounded itself,” said Temple coach Fran Dunphy. “We turned it over needlessly a couple of times and they ran it down.
“They definitely played better than us in that stretch,” said the Owls senior guard Juan Fernandez. “I think that was a big point in the game.”
But the Owls showed why they were the top seed in the tournament. Temple hit four straight 3-pointers over the next 1:48 — with the first three coming from Ramone Moore — to cut its deficit in half, 55-50. The Owls weren’t done, however, as they climbed their way to a 61-57 lead thanks to an 11-2 run.
That’s when UMass showed just how much its grown and matured this season. Williams reeled off five straight points and Morgan drained a 3 from the corner to take a 65-64 lead with 4:24 remaining.
“I was hoping that the tide would turn and fortunately for us it did because these guys kept playing defense,” said Kellogg. “We got good shots on the offensive end and it’s nice when you make some and I thought we made some shots in the second half.”
Morgan was as aggressive in the second half as he’s been all year on the offensive end. He had 16 points in the final frame after scoring just five in the first half, finishing the day at an 8-for-13 pace from the field and 3-for-4 from downtown.
“[It was] just my teammates encouraging me,” he said. “Just telling me to … keep my head, keep playing and it worked out.”
Morgan wasn’t the only one who turned it on in the second half. The team shot 50 percent from the field in the frame including 6-for-7 from 3-point range.
Facing top-seeded Temple and after going cold in the first half offensively, Kellogg admitted that he didn’t know what to expect from his team coming out of the break.
“I felt pretty good where we were but when you’re playing a Top 25 team [that’s] been here and kind of done very well here, sometimes you’re not exactly certain how things are going to work out,” he said.
Fortunately for him and the rest of the UMass squad, it couldn’t have worked out better and with their efforts earned a semifinals date tomorrow with the winner of Saint Joseph’s and St. Bonaventure.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.