ALBANY, N.Y. – The Massachusetts men’s basketball team has had a flare for the dramatics early on this season.
Wednesday night’s 64-63 victory at Siena after Chaz Williams’ tough bucket down the lane with 3.3 seconds remaining reemphasized a common theme for the Minutemen – they’re capturing triumphs by the skins of their teeth.
Williams’ go-ahead basket made up for UMass’ abysmal first half that featured botched lay-ups and clanked 3-pointers that led to a 34-24 halftime deficit.
But as the Minutemen (3-2) have done so many times already this season, they didn’t panic. They started to play the way their capable of playing. They just felt the need to wait out the first 20 minutes, as one critic after another offered to give up their seat on the UMass basketball bandwagon.
Even UMass coach Derek Kellogg was disgusted with his own team’s play. But when Williams held the ball with 24 seconds to start the final possession, he didn’t call a timeout, despite having one in his pocket. He already knew what his team was capable of and put the fate of the game in his players’ hands once again – just as he did on Nov. 15 against Providence and Nov. 13 against Harvard.
And for Williams, the faith Kellogg shows in his players makes all the difference.
“He left the game in our hands and I just had to go make a play,” Williams said.
It was Williams who was all the difference in the second half. The junior led the Minutemen with a game-high 23 points with 14 coming in the final frame. Williams even got the 3-point carousal rolling ever so slightly with a pair of treys that helped salvage a 7-for-33 mark from behind the arc. He also added in four of his six assists in the second half and eight of his 10 rebounds.
Williams said it was his duty to spark the team when it appeared nothing could go its way.
But it took some more faith from another party; this time from senior Terrell Vinson, who encouraged Williams to keep attacking after Williams was discouraged with his 9-for-22 shooting in the first half.
“Terrell kept telling me, ‘Keep shooting. They’re gonna go in eventually,’” Williams said.
And they did. Had they not, people might’ve started questioning whether this team deserves all the hype.
So what can be said about the Minutemen’s 3-2 start to the 2012-13 season? Is it a team that’s lucky to not to be 0-5 after three walk-off victories? Or is it a team that shines under pressure where there’s no room for error?
Williams likes to think it’s the latter and attributes the late-game heroics to the ability of the ‘brotherhood’ to “stick together.”
“I feel like our brotherhood code goes a long way and it shows down the end in late games,” Williams said. “We just have that faith and confidence in each other to know we’re gonna pull through at the end of the game no matter what, and just as long as we stay together and just continue to play UMass basketball.”
Kellogg clearly would rather have the wins come another way. In fact, Kellogg was relieved with the win and acknowledged that three last-second triumphs is uncharted territory for a team.
“It’s probably the strangest 3-2 I’ve ever seen in my life,” Kellogg said. “Three last-second game-winners is probably unheard of and unfathomable. But I guess we’ll take it.”
Kellogg is clearly uneasy with the manner in which the wins are coming, even if they are, in fact, wins. So is Vinson, who said after the game that he wished the victories would “come in a better way.”
UMass won’t survive slow starts like these once conference play rolls around. At some point, the Minutemen will have to string together 40 minutes of “UMass basketball” if it doesn’t want a promising season to fall short of its NCAA Tournament goals.
So until the Minutemen start to figure it out, there might be more buzzer-beating finishes to come.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.