For almost 39 minutes, 59 seconds, Sampson Carter couldn’t buy a basket.
He was 0-for-2 from the field, including a missed lay-up, and after missing the final 30 games of last year with a hip injury and not suiting up for a regular season tilt since Nov. 26, 2011, it had been quite some time since Carter had seen a shot of his go through the basket.
But with the game tied with one second left on the clock, point guard Chaz Williams drove to the basket and found Carter all alone in the left corner, who released the ball as if he had never missed a beat.
Swish. Game over.
UMass (1-0) scratched and clawed its way back from a five-point hole against Harvard to walk-off with a 67-64 in its season-opener on Tuesday morning at the Mullins Center that was broadcasted in front of a national audience as part of the ESPN College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
Carter said he knew the ball was coming when he saw his defender help on Williams’ drive to the rim and heard his bench saying “knock-down” when he received the pass.
“I just think it’s God, honestly, because I started off real bad,” Carter said, who played eight minutes after picking up four fouls. “I’ve been looking forward to this game for probably about a year-and-a-half now, and just to come out and then get in foul trouble and not score until that moment, it was kind of just frustrating for me. So I just think it was a test from God, you know, just to see if I could fight through it.”
And fight through it he did.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who had seen Carter hit that exact shot in practice, said he would’ve been disappointed if he failed to do so this time.
Williams said he had no second thoughts about passing up the game-winning shot in favor of Carter.
“We’ll be up talking late at night and you just never know who the shot going to be on (in) this game, and it happened to go Sampson’s way,” Williams said, “and I just knew he was gonna hit it, so I had all faith and all confidence in passing him the ball.”
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker was happy to see that Williams elected to pass on the final possession rather than shoot.
“I was kind excited, to be honest with you, that he threw it out, because he’s a great finisher at the rim and he’s also crafty enough to get fouled,” Amaker said, “so I just thought it played into our hands, but as it turned out, obviously, the kid made a big shot.”
The Crimson (1-1) built a 64-59 lead with 1:21 remaining in the second half after a pair of free throws by Wesley Saunders.
But that’s when it all started to go down hill for the visiting squad.
Jesse Morgan, who had also been struggling mightily from the field, hit a turn-around jumper from the free-throw line to cut the deficit to three. He then forced Saunders to commit a five-second violation to hand the ball back to the Minutemen. Morgan then drained a deep 3 from the left wing to abruptly tie the game at 64.
If that weren’t enough, Williams forced a turnover at midcourt to give UMass the ball back with 28 seconds left to play with a chance to win the game.
Kellogg elected not to call a timeout to set up the final play and instead left it to his players to decide the outcome of the game, something that he learned from his own coach when he sported a Minutemen uniform as a player.
“I learned that, obviously, many years ago for the guy I played for, coach (John Calipari), that in those situations, let’s have our stuff already in and we’re gonna go and let the guys play,” Kellogg said.
Morgan came off the bench to lead all scorers with 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting, including 2-of-8 from 3-point range. Williams had a double-double with 12 points and 10 assists in his 39 minutes on the floor.
Cady Lalanne, who got the start at center, was another bright spot for UMass, as he grabbed 13 rebounds, scored nine points and swatted four blocks in his 32 minutes on the floor.
Earlier in the week, Kellogg wasn’t sure if Lalanne or Maxie Esho was going to get the start at center, but Lalanne saw far more action than Esho, who only played 10 minutes.
After the game, Kellogg said he would have preferred to play Lalanne 26 minutes, but kept him in for his rebounding ability.
“If (Cady’s) still playing hard and competing, I think he brings us a weapon that we just saw a little bit of that I think he has a chance to be a really, really good player, so I’m gonna play him as many minutes as I can,” Kellogg said.
The Minutemen appeared to have control of the game early on. UMass held a 10-point advantage with 3:46 left in the first half, but Harvard refused to give in and finished the half on a 14-5 run, capped by a Christian Webster three as time expired, to cut the deficit to one at the break.
Amaker was pleased with his team’s ability to fight through adversity in the first half to keep the game close.
“We talked about just playing four minutes at a time, trying to execute what we have in terms of the game plan, sticking with it and grinding through it, those tough moments,” he said. “The key’s for us were concentration, composure and confidence coming in here, and I thought we did that as well as we possibly could.”
Saunders led the Crimson with 18 points, while Siyani Chambers and Webster added 14 and 10, respectively. Chambers also dished out seven assists and just one turnover in the contest.
UMass forced 19 turnovers and turned those opportunities into 29 points.
Freshmen Tyler Bergantino and Izzy Freeman did not see the floor in the game, while fellow rookie Trey Davis only played one minute.
The Minutemen now set off to Puerto Rico Tip-Off when they take on Providence on Thursday night.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.