Those who have followed the Massachusetts men’s basketball team this season had seen this movie play too many times before.
UMass plays a strong first half and watches as the opposition storms out of the locker room to cut the deficit down to one possession, throwing the Minutemen into the heart of yet another game decided in the final minutes.
And when UMass’ 44-30 halftime lead over Duquesne transformed into a 65-62 clinger on Thursday night, it begged the question — how long would it be until the Minutemen were capable of stringing together a run to sprint away with a game rather than surviving one in the final minute?
Fortunately for UMass coach Derek Kellogg, he didn’t have to wait long.
The Minutemen’s 14-2 jolt ended any chance for a Dukes comeback bid, building a 15-point lead with one minute, four seconds remaining to ultimately prevail, 79-66, in front of 3,421 at the Mullins Center.
“I’m getting a little fatigued from all these last minute, last second shots,” Kellogg said. “It was good to kind of pull away and feel like you had the game in the bag for the last two-and-a-half, three minutes.”
Duquesne (7-10, 0-3 Atlantic 10) guard Derrick Colter’s lay-in brought the Dukes within three, 65-62, with 7:12 remaining, but Terrell Vinson hit a fade-away jumper, grabbed a rebound on the other end of the floor and zipped a pass to Freddie Riley, who pulled up and buried a 3-pointer in transition. All of a sudden, the Minutemen (12-4, 2-1 A-10) had an eight-point advantage and the home crowd rocking. Duquesne never got within single digits again.
“They were really on a scoring run so when I hit the three, I felt like it gave us some momentum to win the game because they were getting close,” said Riley, who finished with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting from 3-point range.
Riley’s clutch shot marked the second instance in as many games that a triple of his own proved to be the dagger that held off the opposition’s comeback. In Sunday’s win at Fordham, Riley nailed a 3-pointer with 33.9 seconds left to push UMass’ lead to five and help stave off the Rams’ second-half surge.
“I’m just trying to go out there and be confident,” Riley said of his recent clutch factor. “I’m known as a shooter so when I get an open shot, I need to put them in, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Jesse Morgan’s defensive presence was dearly missed against Duquesne’s Sean Johnson, who paved the way for the Dukes in the second half, scoring 18 of his game-high 29 points in the final 20 minutes. He was the leading force in Duquesne’s sprint out of the break, hitting his first five shots from the field in the second half as part of his 16-point onslaught in the opening 5:44 of the half.
Chaz Williams, who led the Minutemen with 22 points and nine assists, was the one who had to take Johnson on the defensive end; something Kellogg doesn’t want to see out of a player who exerts so much energy on the offensive end as well.
“You got Chaz really running our offense and doing a lot of things, it’s hard to then put him on the other team’s best or second best player,” Kellogg said. “One more guy that was a defensive lockdown guy would’ve been nice to have had.”
Vinson finished with 17 points on 8-of-15 shooting in addition to dishing out five assists. Cady Lalanne was a bright spot off the bench, finishing with 12 points and 11 boards in his 25 minutes. Lalanne caused havoc on the offensive glass as well, as UMass put home 18 second-chance points.
Lalanne contributes his better play of late to getting into game shape, which was something that hindered him early in the year as he recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him for the majority of last season.
“I feel like I’m in a lot better shape to run up and down the floor,” Lalanne said. “Coach has been telling me to be relentless on the boards, just go out there and rebound.”
The Minutemen overcame a mostly sloppy first half with a 23-8 spurt over a 7:14 span to build a 44-27 lead — the largest differential of the contest.
UMass gets right back at it Saturday afternoon when it hosts George Washington at 4 p.m. Former Minuteman great Marcus Camby will have his jersey retired during a halftime ceremony.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.