No, it wasn’t the prettiest of performances, but for a Massachusetts men’s basketball team looking to pad its win-loss record before jumping into Atlantic 10 Conference play in a few weeks, the Minutemen’s 88-81 win over East Carolina on Saturday will do just fine.
UMass (7-3, 0-0 A-10) exchanged stomach punches with the visiting Pirates throughout the game. After one team would go on an extended scoring run, the other simply took its lumps and waited for an opportunity to do the very same.
Fortunately for Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg, who was disappointed after the game about letting East Carolina (7-3, 0-0 Conference USA) get back into contention late, his team was able to wade through its opponent’s final push for victory.
“Yeah, I was very frustrated,” he said. “I mean, you’re up 17 (points), you’ve got to just close the game out.”
Kellogg said he’d shoulder some of the blame for UMass’ let downs, saying that his team hasn’t really worked on the type of press-attack offense that broke down late in game against the Pirates.
“But we’re 7-3 and I think we’re playing pretty good,” he said. “Not great, but I think we’re doing some better things and guys are starting to nestle into their roles a little bit.”
Of particular use to the Minutemen in staving off the 28-16 East Carolina run to close out the game was a rebound in offensive production from junior guard Chaz Williams.
Williams, who played all 40 minutes and had his 26-game streak of double-digit scoring snapped in the win against Ohio on Wednesday, responded in superlative fashion on Saturday with a season-high 26 points, including 15-of-16 shooting from the free throw line.
While the point guard had been struggling from the line of late, eight of those free throw makes helped UMass ice the victory late with the game’s outcome still in question and the Pirates in desperation-foul mode.
“I’ve just been working on my free throws,” Williams said. “Just getting in the gym (and ) shooting them. I’ve always been a pretty good free throw shooter my whole life, my whole career, so it was unusual for me to be missing free throws the way I was when I (was) missing them.
“So, I just got in the gym and just put in extra work on my free throws and they went down today.”
Also of note for the Minutemen was senior guard Freddie Riley’s season-high 14-point effort, most of which came in the second half with his team reeling and looking for answers offensively.
Kellogg was impressed with how Riley has responded to a more limited role in the UMass game plan.
“I was really encouraged, more so, with Freddie Riley,” Kellogg said. “I thought his defense today was fantastic, he was really locked in. His attitude has been great this year, he’s really bought into the team concept (and) he’s playing defense.
“It was nice to see Freddie put a good game together for us.”
Early on, it did not appear that the late game heroics of either Williams of Riley would be necessary, as the Minutemen jumped out to 14-0 lead in the opening four minutes, 19 seconds of the game. But as would be the case throughout the duration of the contest, the Pirates hung tough, withstanding the UMass barrage and closing the gap to six points at the half.
The Minutemen would open another large lead, this time 19 points, with just over six minutes remaining in regulation before withstanding the final East Carolina charge.
Senior forward Terrell Vinson, who finished the game just one point shy of 1,000 for his collegiate career, and junior guard Jesse Morgan both finished with 15 points for UMass.
After heading home for the holidays, the Minutemen will hit the road for a 2-game trip out to the Midwest against Northern Illinois on Dec. 29 at 4 p.m. and Miami (OH) on Jan. 2 at 7 p.m.
Daniel Malone can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.