The key ingredients were temporarily missing from the recipe.
Amidst a sloppy first half Saturday against Northern Illinois, arguably the three most important players for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team – Chaz Williams, Jesse Morgan and Terrell Vinson – were all sitting on the bench due to foul trouble.
But while that trio was missing from the lineup, it was a different, and rather unexpected trio that picked up the slack.
Maxie Esho, Freddie Riley and Trey Davis each came off the bench to provide a late first-half spark – pushing what was once a two-point lead into a 13-point halftime advantage – and the Minutemen (8-3) had enough left in the tank in the second half to hold off the Huskies (2-10), 64-59, for their fifth consecutive victory.
Esho finished with a team-high 14 points, 11 of which came in the first half, in a season-high 25 minutes while Riley scored 11 points and Davis played well in a season-high 13 minutes.
“I thought actually the foul trouble in the first half might have helped us,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “The second unit was the one that extended and expanded the lead.”
With 6:14 left in the first half, Morgan was whistled for his third foul on a charge, prompting him to take a seat on the bench with Williams and Vinson – who each had two fouls at the time. Riley took over for him, and that’s when the Minutemen, leading by two, took off.
Davis immediately found Sampson Carter for a layup on UMass’ ensuing possession, which ignited a 15-2 run over the final six minutes of the half. Esho scored eight points during the surge – all on dunks – to help spark the Minutemen to a 36-23 halftime advantage.
“I think (Esho) is better when the game is a little bit more unorganized or a little bit up-tempo,” Kellogg said. “I think he gets to use his athleticism and really make athletic plays, which he did a great job of throughout the contest.”
Despite the Minutemen’s late first-half surge, the Huskies didn’t back down.
After missing all seven of its 3-point attempts in the first half, NIU made five timely ones in the second half. Maybe even more importantly, the Huskies crashed the offensive glass at a high rate while also forcing UMass into a number of ill-advised turnovers. The Minutemen committed 20 turnovers for the game and NIU grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, both numbers Kellogg was naturally displeased with.
“I thought if we could have defensive rebounded better, we would have got more transition baskets and they wouldn’t have got so many second-chance opportunities, which is a key for how they play,” Kellogg said.
“The 20 turnovers is a huge sticking point,” he continued. “Many of them were kind of unforced. I thought we had transition layups where we turned the ball over a few times. We’ve worked on trying to improve our decision-making as a team and so we’re going to continue to zero in on that to a certain extent.”
NIU ultimately pulled to within two with 58 seconds left on a 3-pointer by Abdel Nader and were in a position to tie or take the lead with 26 seconds left. But Nader traveled with 12 seconds left and Williams and Vinson iced the game with free throws.
Vinson reaches 1,000 career points
Vinson needed just one point on Saturday to reach 1,000 for his career, but it didn’t come nearly as easy as he may have thought it would.
The senior forward went to the foul line for two free throws early in the first half, but missed both of them. About eight minutes later, he finally got back to the line and sank both free throws to go over 1,000 for his career.
He later admitted that the thought of reaching the milestone threw him off during his first trip to the free throw line.
“It probably distracted me on my first two free throws,” Vinson said. “I missed both of them because I was thinking about getting to 1,000 points. It’s cool.”
Vinson became the 44th player in UMass history to reach the 1,000-point barrier and the second player to do so this season. Williams achieved the feat on Nov. 28 against Siena.
Instead of staying on the road, UMass will immediately head home to Amherst before heading back west for its game at Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday night. The Minutemen will get a few practices in on campus and then fly out on New Year’s Day.
Tip-off on Wednesday night is scheduled for 7 p.m. After Saturday’s win, UMass is now 3-0 in true road contests.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.