If Thursday night’s Atlantic 10 opener is any indication, fans will have to make sure to get their popcorn ready for conference play.
The Massachusetts men’s basketball team stayed neck-and-neck with Saint Louis the entire affair, but the Billikens made more plays down the stretch to pull away and hold off the Minutemen, 70-62, at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis, Mo., and snap their seven-game winning streak.
A Chaz Williams triple gave UMass (10-4, 0-1 A-10) a 54-50 lead with nine minutes, 28 seconds left in the game, but the Minutemen fell cold for the remainder of the contest, finishing 2-for-11 from the field, as SLU scored 14 of the next 18 points to open up a 64-58 advantage to seize control of the ballgame.
Williams, who finished with 14 points and seven helpers, accepted the blame for the late-game shooting skid. The junior was just 1-for-5 from the field in the final 8:38.
“This loss weighs heavy on my shoulders because, being the leader, I’m supposed to make some of those plays down the stretch,” Williams said in a postgame interview. “But we’re just gonna learn from this and move forward.”
On the top of the defeat, UMass nearly suffered an even bigger loss when Jesse Morgan went down with what appeared to be, at the time, a serious right knee injury as Morgan screamed and hollered in pain just 1:33 into the second half and had to be helped off the court. But Morgan’s injury has been ruled as just a sprain and the team has listed him as day-to-day, although he will miss Sunday’s game at Fordham.
In Morgan’s absence, center Cady Lalanne was the one that stepped up, dropping a career-high 18 points while also hauling 13 boards — seven on the offensive glass — in 29 minutes. Lalanne showed glimpses of the post presence that Kellogg expected to see out of him this season, as Lalanne made a living on the block and around the rim.
“I expect him to be a double-double guy … really on a consistent basis,” Kellogg said. “Now when he doesn’t do that, then I can get on him.”
Billiken forward Rob Loe led all scorers with 20 points, while guard Jordair Jett was a difference maker off the bench with his 15 points and three steals.
The Minutemen were within three at 59-56 with just under five minutes remaining when Raphiael Putney was whistled for a foul on a Cody Ellis 3-point attempt. Putney fouled out on the play and Ellis sunk all three attempts at the line to build SLU’s lead back to six; a sequence that Kellogg felt was a big swing of momentum.
“That was a big break for them,” Kellogg said.
Despite playing without its key perimeter defender and leader in Morgan, UMass not only weathered the blow, but turned it up a notch, refusing to cave as the teams continued to match one another from one end to the next.
Williams said the team had to focus on making up for Morgan’s production as a unit, but admitted that his influence was missed out on the court.
“It’s hard to focus because Jesse’s one of our mentally strong players,” Williams said. “He’s a great defender, so you know with him out there, it’s kind of missing. You miss his spirit and everything. Him not being out there kind of affected us a lot.”
Foul trouble also didn’t help the Minutemen, as Vinson, Putney and Williams all had three fouls within the first 2:08 of the second half. Even with the foul trouble and Morgan missing almost the entire second half, the Minutemen managed to hang in the game, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier to take for Kellogg.
“To see the kids really play their hearts out and not come away with a victory I thought was a little bit draining for us,” Kellogg said. “This is a league where you just gotta put it, not really behind you, you gotta learn from it and get better, but at the same token, we play now on Sunday and we gotta get ready for that game.”
That contest is a 1 p.m. tip-off at Fordham as A-10 play continues.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.