The Massachusetts men’s basketball team needed a made free throw, but instead got a miss. Then, on the rare occasion when the team needed a miss, it got a make.
And that was the kind of game it was for the Minutemen, who fell to George Washington, 79-76, on Saturday in front of 7,143 at the Mullins Center.
Facing a three-point deficit with three seconds to go, UMass got a gift as guard Freddie Riley was fouled going up for a last-chance 3-point attempt, putting him at the charity stripe with a chance to tie the game and likely send it to overtime with a swarm of momentum generated from yet another back-against-the-wall, do-or-die sprint to the finish.
That was until Riley’s first attempt fell short after glazing off the front rim.
But after making the second, the Minutemen’s only chance relied on a Riley miss and a tip-in off the rebound. Riley hoisted up his third attempt as players from both squads darted to the paint to fight for position of the ensuing miss.
But despite his best efforts to do otherwise, Riley’s shot whistled through the net, providing a fitting ending to an inconsistent afternoon for UMass (12-5, 2-2 Atlantic 10).
Riley said after the game that he was trying to miss, but purposely missing a free throw is a hard thing to do.
“I wanted to hit the front of the rim so it could come off so we could have a chance to get the rebound, but you don’t really practice misses,” Riley said.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg said the team has practiced those situations and thinks they need to do it more, but also acknowledged those scenarios are difficult emulate very often.
“It’d be hard to have 15 guys go up there every day and practice missed free throws,” Kellogg said, “so that’s something that you should just kind of be able to do.”
The Colonials (8-9, 2-2 A-10) were in total control midway through the second half with a 60-48 lead. But, as they’ve done so often this year, the Minutemen saved their best for last, cutting into the lead with a 6-0 run to bring the deficit to six with seven minutes, 38 seconds left.
Minutes later, a Chaz Williams triple and Cady Lalanne layup brought the game within two at 74-72 with 33 seconds left, setting the stage for UMass’ trademark this season, when it falls asleep to start the second half and finally kicks it into gear not a second too soon.
But the heroics had to end at some time and the Minutemen’s burst proved to be too little too late.
“It’s worked for us numerous times this year, but I think when you’re playing in this conference and this league, you just can’t do those things,” Kellogg said.
Williams wasn’t his normal self despite leading all scorers with 18 points. He finished 5-for-17 from the field, including countless unwarranted drives to the lane where he was swallowed by the Colonials in the paint – a play that typically works out in his favor but didn’t fall Saturday.
“I can’t go 5-for-17,” Williams said. “My teammates look to me to be aggressive and a leader and that can’t be the type of game I have if we’re gonna win every night.”
Raphiael Putney snapped out of his recent shooting funk with 14 points – 12 in the second half – on 5-of-9 shooting, which he hopes will help jumpstart him in the right direction for the remainder of the season.
“I just look at it as a momentum builder for me, myself,” Putney said. “I’ve been stuck early in the season, so (I’m) just trying to bring more intensity to myself and for my teammates.”
Putney started to make an impact as UMass finally picked the pace up in the second half, which Kellogg believes is the ideal situation for Putney to succeed.
“He’s another guy, a lot like Chaz; they need the pace of the game to be moving, and I think when it gets moving that’s when he’s at his best,” Kellogg said.
After falling behind, 40-33, at the half, the Minutemen came out flat, once again, out of the locker room as George Washington came out with an 8-0 run and led by as many as 16 with 14:59 left to play.
The players understand that playing from behind in the second half isn’t a reliable option for success.
“From start to finish, we just gotta bring our intensity day in and day out,” Putney said. “We can’t wait until the last minute to pick it up.”
Kellogg appeared out of answers for his team’s lapses coming out of the break.
“I’m still trying to figure out what to do so that we come out with a little more energy and intensity after the half, because last year that was something that we were very good at,” he said.
UMass is off for eight days before returning to action on Jan. 27 when it hosts George Washington.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.