The Massachusetts men’s basketball team will play at Madison Square Garden in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals for the second time in five years after the Minutemen defeated Drexel and former UMass coach Bruiser Flint last Tuesday in Philadelphia, 72-70.
The Minutemen (25-11) now face Stanford Tuesday at 7 p.m. at MSG for a chance to play for the NIT championship game.
Sophomore point guard Chaz Williams led UMass against the Dragons (29-7), just like he did in the first two rounds of the tournament.
Against Drexel, he scored a game-high 20 points and added four rebounds and four assists. In the Minutemen’s three postseason games, Williams has averaged 22.7 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and 5.3 assists per game. He’s also shot 51 percent from the field, and 53 percent from 3-point range.
UMass spent the majority of the game trying to stay afloat, as the Dragons controlled the majority of the contest, with the Minutemen trailing, 41-31, at halftime.
With 16 minutes and 29 seconds remaining, Drexel’s Frantz Massenat made a layup and was fouled by Terrell Vinson. Massenat’s three-point play gave the Dragons a 53-36 lead, their largest of the game.
However, UMass never gave up as Williams, Vinson and Jesse Morgan orchestrated a furious comeback.
After Massenat’s three-point play, the Minutemen outscored Drexel 26-7 over the next nine minutes and seven seconds to take a 62-60 lead, an advantage they would never relinquish.
Williams ignited the rally, scoring five straight points to cut the deficit below 10 points. Morgan (13 points) followed with a 5-0 run of his own, making the score 55-50.
UMass continued to chip away at the lead, and a Morgan 3-pointer gave the Minutemen a 62-60 advantage, its first lead of the game.
UMass’ starting backcourt combined for 16 of the 26 points scored during the pivotal stretch.
However, while Morgan and Williams sparked the run, Vinson (18 points) finished it off.
The Dragons were unable to slow the junior power forward, who scored eight points between the 7:50 and 4:14 marks. He scored on a variety of mid-range jump shots and layups, and his jump shot with four minutes and 14 seconds remaining gave his team a six-point lead.
Drexel fought back over the last four minutes, and cut the deficit to two in the waning moments, but failed on three different opportunities to tie or take the lead in the final minute.
Dartaye Ruffin led the Dragons with 17 points off the bench, all 17 coming in the first half. Massenat (16 points), Samme Givens (12 points) and Derrick Thomas (10 points) also chipped in for Drexel.
The Minutemen won despite grabbing just 16 rebounds all game. Drexel collected 36 boards, including 20 offensive rebounds.
UMass upsets Seton Hall
On March 17, the Minutemen traveled to South Orange, N.J., and defeated the top seed in their bracket, Seton Hall, 77-67, in the second round of the NIT tournament.
Williams led the way for No. 5 seed UMass with 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He did the majority of his damage from the free throw line, where he went 10-for-14.
Williams had plenty of help from others, as Raphiael Putney (15 points), Sean Carter (11 points, 11 rebounds) and Vinson (10 points) all scored in double-figures.
Vinson and Williams were integral to the victory, as they dominated the final seven minutes of the game.
With 7:40 left and the Minutemen trailing by one point, Williams and Vinson – who had combined for just 13 points to that point – stepped up their play.
The most pivotal stretch of the game came with less than three minutes remaining and the Minutemen leading by just a point after a pair of Herb Pope (nine points, 15 rebounds) free throws.
Vinson and Williams responded with back-to-back 3-pointers to open up a seven-point lead with one minute and 38 seconds remaining. The No. 1 seed Pirates (21-13) were unable to overcome the deficit, as Williams, Putney, and Morgan iced the game with free throws.
When all was said and done, Williams had scored nine points and Vinson had eight over the final 7:40.
The Minutemen, who were coming off of a 101-96 double overtime victory over Mississippi State, maintained a 36-30 halftime lead and led by as many as 12.
Seton Hall was led by Fuquan Edwin, who tallied a game-high 21 points, and Jordan Theodore, who chipped in 14 points. The Pirates struggled to shoot the ball, going just 35 percent from the field, and 5-for-27 from behind the 3-point line.
UMass, on the other hand, shot 59 percent from the field, but was hampered by poor free throw shooting (8-for-17).
Jackson Alexander can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Alexander.