NEW YORK — Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg watched as his squad’s 10-point lead midway through the second half dwindled and dwindled until all of a sudden Fordham cut the deficit to two with one minute, four seconds remaining.
The Rams had the momentum of a 9-2 jolt and the rumbling crowd of 2,567 fans at Rose Hill Gymnasium bearing down over the court, ready to erupt once more with a defensive stand by the home team to set up a chance to force overtime or walk off with a heart-thumping victory.
But Kellogg knew the storm would come, and he knew how this contest would end. And when Freddie Riley buried a triple with 33.9 seconds left to build a five-point cushion and silence the crowd, followed by freshman Trey Davis’ one clutch free throw after another to cement the win, Kellogg wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“It didn’t surprise me much when the lead started coming down a little bit,” he said. “I knew we were gonna hold and be strong and tough and try to win the game.”
UMass (11-4, 1-1 Atlantic 10) grabbed its first conference win of the season Sunday afternoon, holding on for a 77-73 escape at Fordham (5-12, 1-1 A-10).
“I thought winning on the road against a team that I think is much improved and had won their last three at home is a good start for our program to get to 1-1 in the conference,” Kellogg said. “I think that’s a team that’s gonna do well in the conference, especially at home.”
The Minutemen’s 40-26 halftime advantage didn’t last very long, as Chris Gaston and Branden Frazier shook off uncharacteristic poor first halves —1-for-10 and 1-for-7, respectively — to jump start Fordham’s second half surge. Gaston and Frazier combined to score 21 of the Rams’ first 23 points in the second half to cut the deficit down to nine, 58-49, with 9:09 left to go. Gaston finished the game with 20 points (8-for-9 in the second half), while Frazier racked up 21 in the defeat.
“I figured it was going to get tighter before they got further away because those guys are good players,” Kellogg said of Gaston and Frazier. “They’re two of the better guys in the league.”
Fortunately for Kellogg, his best player showed up to play as well.
Chaz Williams — a Brooklyn, N.Y., native — returned back to the New York area to catapult UMass with 22 points, seven assists, six boards and zero turnovers. With Jesse Morgan inactive due to a knee sprain, Williams spent most of the game running off screens at the two-guard spot while Davis ran the point.
“When you’re a basketball player, you gotta go out there and do what coach wants you to do,” Williams said. “It actually felt good (to be) off the ball for a little bit and not having everybody just looking at me.”
Kellogg knows how important Williams’ play is while Morgan is sidelined.
“I thought tonight he started to put together a complete basketball game,” Kellogg said. “We need him to play that way right now, especially with Jesse’s injury. We need Chaz to do what he’s doing.”
Davis had a breakout game, scoring 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting, while also dishing out four assists against zero turnovers.
The Minutemen were torched on the glass, particularly in the first half when Fordham grabbed 16 offensive boards to UMass’ five. The Rams finished the contest with 26 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points.
Kellogg was concerned with his team’s play on the glass and noted that’s an area the Minutemen need to address.
“If we get a little tougher on the boards, we should be OK,” Kellogg said.
UMass continues A-10 play as it welcomes Duquesne to the Mullins Center Thursday night for a 7 p.m. tip-off.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.