SPRINGFIELD – Some say that repetition is the key to success.
And when the Massachusetts men’s basketball team plays in close games, that saying can certainly be applied.
There were no buzzer-beaters or last-second, go-ahead baskets Saturday afternoon at the MassMutual Center. But the Minutemen, in yet another tight, down-to-the-wire finish, found a way to win, edging Elon, 78-73, in overtime in front of 3,085 fans.
For UMass (5-3), each of its five wins so far this season has been decided by six points or less.
“That goes along the lines of the UMass team this year, if you’re a fan or a coach or a patron, you’re probably wondering how many either overtime or one-second games we can win,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said.
Despite coming away with another nail-biting win, it appeared the game wasn’t heading that way for UMass down the stretch. The Minutemen held a 62-55 advantage with only 3:07 remaining in regulation, but let the Phoenix (6-4) go on a 11-4 run in the closing minutes.
UMass point guard Chaz Williams hit a floater with 39 seconds left, which gave the Minutemen a 66-63 lead. On the ensuing possession, Elon guard Sebastian Koch’s layup was blocked, but the rebound found the hands of an open Tanner Samson, who drilled a 3-pointer to tie the game at 66 with 8.3 seconds left.
After a timeout, Williams then drove the ball coast-to-coast, found a seam in the lane and was fouled, which sent him to the line with 2.2 seconds left and a chance to win. But the point guard uncharacteristically missed both of his chances and the game went to overtime.
“I thought the game was over, honestly,” Kellogg said of his thoughts when Williams stepped to the free throw line. “He’s about as clutch a player as I’ve been around and I was a little shocked that he didn’t make both of them actually, not even just one.”
Williams, however, didn’t hold his head, instead helping his team to a 12-7 advantage in overtime to edge the Phoenix. Williams finished with 20 points and nine assists while Terrell Vinson scored a team-high 22 points – including going 13-for-14 from the foul line. Sampson Carter, starting at center again, put together another strong game, finishing with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
“I knew my teammates were going to be there for me no matter what,” Williams said. “I just worried about the next play, I didn’t worry about the free throws as much once I missed them. My teammates just told me to worry about the next play, and there it was.”
Much like the second half, both teams played neck and neck through the first 20 minutes. Elon guard Jack Isenbarger scored 16 first-half points to help the Phoenix keep pace with the Minutemen as both teams headed into halftime tied at 33.
UMass led by as much as nine at 51-42 with 9:31 remaining and appeared to be in control, but Cady Lalanne, in his first game since sitting out nearly two weeks from suspension, corralled an offensive rebound and was blocked going back up. Ryley Beaumont nailed a 3 on the other end, bringing the Phoenix back within six on a five-point swing.
Before the Minutemen realized it, Elon was right back in it.
“The whole game I was looking at it and saying, ‘How is the game close?’” Vinson said. “I thought we went on a 20-0 run at one time but we were only up two.”
Carter was similarly surprised at how close the game became.
“It was 59-55 and I thought we were up by double digits,” he said. “I look up, and we were only up four.”
In the end, UMass, despite Williams’ two misses with seconds remaining, made enough free throws, particularly in the overtime period, to preserve the victory. The Minutemen went 8-for-12 from the stripe in the extra session, and made 31 of their 47 attempts for the game.
Kellogg is far from satisfied despite the win. .
“We’re a long ways from home,” he said. “I think this team is still trying to search for an identity of how we’re going to play and what we’re good at. Right now, at times, it’s kind of like a good player makes a play instead of us really sharing and making good plays for each other.
“The positive is we’re 5-3 with the three losses against NC State, Miami and Tennessee. If we can figure out how we need to play a little bit better, we have a chance to be good.”
Next up for UMass is a trip back to the Mullins Center on Wednesday night for a game against Ohio. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.