For once, there were no dramatics, no surviving or last-second finishes for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.
Instead, the Minutemen finally, it seems, treated their fans to a comfortable victory and heading home encouraged as the team exits its non-conference schedule and into the brutal reality that is Atlantic 10 conference play.
Spurred by big performances off the bench from Freddie Riley and Maxie Esho, UMass (10-3) used several scoring runs en route to its seventh straight victory, a 75-61 defeat of Eastern Michigan (7-7) in front of 5,060 fans at the Mullins Center on Saturday afternoon.
The win is the Minutemen’s first by double digits this season after beating opponents by an average of 4.3 points in their first nine victories.
“It was nice to get a game where we made some shots finally,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “I think if we can figure out how to start off the second half a little better and kind of start getting that killer instinct in the second half I think we have a chance to be a very good basketball team.”
After jumping out to a dominating 38-25 halftime advantage, it appeared that the Minutemen may have shaken off their reputation of getting into close games. But as Kellogg alluded to, UMass started the second half shaky and allowed the Eagles to cut the deficit to as close as four with 15 minutes, 34 seconds left in regulation.
The Minutemen responded in a big way, however, something that has evaded the team for the most part this season. After Kellogg called a timeout, his team embarked on a 13-2 run in the span of 3:30, concluded by a Riley 3-pointer that gave the Minutemen a 57-42 advantage with 12:04 left. EMU never got closer than 12 the rest of the way.
“I thought it was a big step,” Kellogg said of his team’s run. “We called a timeout, they actually executed for two plays in a row, and what was good to see was that we got back to our UMass identity of pressing and playing for 40 and trying to control tempo.”
Video by Taylor C. Snow
Riley led all scorers with 18 points off the bench, most of which came courtesy of a 3-point barrage in the first half. With UMass trailing EMU 12-10 with 12:05 left in the first half, the senior guard entered the game and promptly drilled five consecutive 3-pointers as part of a 24-5 Minutemen run that gave the team a commanding 34-17 lead with 4:44 to go in the first half.
After starting the season very slow and not scoring more than five points in any game through the team’s first nine contests, Riley has averaged 12.3 points in his last four games. He’s also gone 13-for-27 (48.1 percent) from beyond the arc in that span, including his 6-of-9 performance on Saturday.
“You gotta give Fred the ball when he’s on fire,” UMass guard Chaz Williams said. “It’s like he’s got a little red match under his feet and he just keeps scoring and once he gets his roll going, you just gotta keep going to him, so that’s what I was trying to do.”
Esho played a season-high 32 minutes off the bench, finishing with 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting in addition to his team-high nine rebounds. But maybe where he was more effective was on defense, where he anchored a UMass press that forced the Eagles into 20 turnovers and struggling to get over half court multiple times.
The Minutemen finished with 23 points off turnovers, and their overwhelming defensive pressure forced EMU to run out of timeouts with over 12 minutes left in regulation.
“Not only do we want to win, but I think the fans want to see us win playing a certain style here,” Kellogg said, “or at least with some energy and getting up and down the floor and although it wasn’t perfect, it was a nice win for the team and we’ll take it.”
Williams finished with 14 points, nine assists and four steals while Jesse Morgan contributed 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting from long range. J.R. Sims paced the Eagles with 12 points while Glenn Bryant finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds for the visitors.
With non-conference play now behind them, UMass will next fly out to Saint Louis to kick off conference play on Thursday night.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.