It hadn’t exactly gone according to script.
Sampson Carter has never been the most athletic or talkative player in the gym in his time in Amherst. Calmly and quietly, the Massachusetts men’s basketball forward has gone about his business, listening to his coaches and teammates.
Likewise on Tuesday morning, the senior stepped on the court with one minute, 12 seconds remaining in a closely-contested battle between the Minutemen and Harvard like no one had noticed.
Jesse Morgan had hit a jumper – which started the comeback – to pull UMass within three. Carter then subbed in for Cady Lalanne, a move coach Derek Kellogg likely made to give his team an extra shooting option down the stretch, especially after Terrell Vinson – arguably the team’s most clutch player – fouled out with just over three minutes remaining.
But no one expected Carter to be the option.
After all, the 6-foot-8 forward had played all but seven minutes and misfired on both shot attempts he took. He was also in serious foul trouble, picking up four in his limited playing time.
But all of that didn’t matter. Morgan hit a deep 3-pointer to tie the game, and the suffocating UMass defensive press forced a turnover to give the team back the ball with just 28 seconds left.
It all came down to just one play. Carter took his spot in front of the UMass bench as he patiently waited for Chaz Williams to make a play. With about seven seconds remaining, the point guard went into motion. He blew by his defender to get into the lane, but the Crimson defense collapsed on him.
And then, just like they practiced so many times, Carter slid to the corner behind the 3-point line. Williams saw him in the corner of his eye and rifled a pass into his waiting hands. And without hesitation, Carter calmly rose and launched the ball and watched as it swished through the netting, sending the Mullins Center crowd into hysteria.
Harvard’s half-court heave was too late as the Minutemen escaped with a thrilling and rather unexpected and surprising come-from-behind victory in their season opener.
“It was funny, when Sampson was open, I instantly thought that he was going to make that shot,” Kellogg said. “He’s made that shot the last three days in practice every time, so if he didn’t make it, I would have been thoroughly disappointed.”
Luckily for Carter, he did.
“Once I saw Chaz go baseline, I knew I was getting it,” Carter said. “It’s stuff we work on, so I knew to slide to the corner. … It was instinct, I heard my bench behind me saying, ‘Knock (it) down,’ so I was confident.
Carter’s shot was all the more impressive not only given the in-game circumstances, but what he’s had to fight through to get back on the court.
A season ago, Carter was expected to be one of the Minutemen’s most reliable and veteran players on a team that was loaded with youth and inexperience. He scored a career-high 17 points to go along with seven rebounds in the team’s season-opening win over Elon.
He was one of UMass’ top scorers through its first seven games, but a lingering hip injury went too far in a Nov. 26 matchup with College of Charleston. His prospects appeared bleak as he missed the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery.
Carter wasn’t supposed to be one of the Minutemen’s top options especially early on this season. He wasn’t the first player off the bench on Tuesday, and while he did play, he’s still not quite 100 percent yet. His eight minutes reflected that, albeit he was also in foul trouble for most of the game.
“To come out there and get in foul trouble and not score until that moment, it was kind of just frustrating to me,” Carter said. “So I just think it was a testament to God to see if I could fight through and it just so happened that moment just happened, so I just take it like that.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.