PHILADELPHIA — The Massachusetts men’s basketball team has developed a reputation, and more or less an expectation, for winning games this season in a last-second, dramatic fashion.
This one, however, meant a little more.
After four years of entering and leaving Tom Gola Arena with a loss, UMass coach Derek Kellogg finally left it with a win as the Minutemen escaped – again – in a thrilling 61-60 victory over La Salle on Wednesday night. It was UMass’ first win at Tom Gola Arena since Jan. 6, 2007.
UMass (14-5, 4-2 Atlantic 10) is also now 9-1 this season in games decided by five points or less.
“(It’s satisfying) to have Freddie (Riley) and (Terrell Vinson) go out with a win at La Salle,” UMass point guard Chaz Williams said. “These last four years have been tough, just coming in here and winning was always a tough thing, and we’re fortunate we pulled out the win today.”
Like so many other times this season, Williams was the center of the winning play.
Down one with 38 seconds left, Kellogg opted not to call timeout after Explorer guard Tyreek Duren scored on a floater to put his team ahead. Williams ignored “airball” chants raining down on him from La Salle’s student section – a result of a play earlier in the game – and dribbled the shot clock down. Then, he made his move.
With the help of a few ball screens, the junior dribbled around traffic, into the lane and, virtually unguarded, laid a layup off the glass and in to give UMass the decisive go-ahead bucket.
La Salle raced down the other end, but Jerrell Wright’s desperation jumper at the buzzer fell short, prompting the UMass bench to empty into celebration mode on the court.
“Once I saw coach telling me to slow the ball down, I knew what we were going to run, everybody else knew what we were going to run,” said Williams, who finished with just six points and six assists. “I just made a play. I wasn’t making shots all day, so I was actually looking to pass.
“I just wanted to make a play for my team and get a victory.”
Kellogg was questioned after the game for his decision to hold for the last shot. However, despite going ahead with eight seconds left, he felt his team gave La Salle too much time.
“I was really trying to say, ‘Let’s get the last shot and try to win the game on the last possession,’” Kellogg said. “(La Salle) has so many handlers and guys that can make plays that I didn’t want to be put in the possession where we would have to guard them, because I saw what (Ramon) Galloway did against Butler.”
After a sloppy beginning to the game, the Minutemen began to pull away late in the first half, using an 11-0 run to increase their lead to 33-21 with 2:31 left in the frame. But Wright went on a 6-0 run of his own in the final two minutes of the half to close the Explorers’ deficit to 33-27 at halftime.
Raphiael Putney had one of his best halves of the season to help UMass get an early lead. He scored 11 first-half points, including his first 3-pointer since Jan. 2. He didn’t commit any fouls in the game, something that has been plaguing him all season, on his way to a team-high 17 points.
Following last year’s game between the two at Tom Gola Arena, in which La Salle opened up a 26-point halftime advantage, Kellogg thought it was important for his team to get out to a strong start, as they did.
“I thought one of the biggest things for us was to feel confident,” Kellogg said. “And once we got nestled in, in the first six or eight minutes of the game, then I knew we were going to be in for a battle for the rest of the night.
“The guys had a different edge about them coming into this game. They were very focused and paid attention to detail in practices.”
The second half was evenly matched as both teams traded punches in the final 20 minutes. The Minutemen evaded their recent reputation of starting second halves slow, weathering a furious La Salle rally, powered by a strong performance from Galloway, who finished with a team-high 16 points.
UMass eventually caved, as La Salle took a 51-50 lead with 8:03 remaining. From there, both teams continued trading baskets right down to the final minute.
Trailing by one with less than a minute left, Vinson took the ball down low and banked in a jumper off the window to give UMass a one-point lead. Duren responded with a floater in the lane with 38 seconds left, which set up Williams’ heroics.
Kellogg noticed a difference in his team heading into Wednesday night’s battle.
“I had confidence that we were maybe not going to win the game, but at least that we were going to be there at the end,” Kellogg said. “I said to them, ‘Let’s give ourselves a chance with two or three minutes left to have a chance to win the game, and that’s really what happened. It kind of played out the way we talked about it.”
UMass will now continue its road trip to Charlotte this Saturday. Kellogg said he won’t let his team get too high over this win.
“We’ll be ready to play,” he said. “These guys are maturing. They feel like this is a good opportunity for us.
“They better not get complacent or we’ll practice for three hours on Friday.”