Down one with possession and time running out, Chaz Williams received the ball and looked to score yet another game-winner.
The Massachusetts men’s basketball point guard, who made the winning layup in the team’s one-point thriller at La Salle on Wednesday night, got the ball with about nine seconds left, drove around a Cady Lalanne screen and took it to the hole.
But unlike Wednesday, when he easily cut through the defense for the winner, the ball was stripped out of his hands by Charlotte’s Pierria Henry. Williams fell to the floor as he watched the 49ers race the other way and take a 66-65 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 9,105 at Halton Arena on Saturday afternoon.
UMass (14-6, 4-3 Atlantic 10) is now 9-2 in games decided by five points or less this season.
“I’ve gone with Chaz all year along in those situations in hopes that he makes the right decision,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said in a postgame radio interview. “Today, it really wasn’t there, and he tried to force it in down the paint. I thought he might have got hit, but on the road with the way the calls were going today, I didn’t think he was going to get the call.”
The 49ers (17-4, 5-2 A-10) held a seven-point advantage with six minutes, 21 seconds remaining, but the Minutemen scratched and clawed back as Williams and Freddie Riley both hit 3-pointers to make it a one-point game with 4:59 to play.
Terrell Vinson, who finished with a career-high 23 points, buried a triple to tie the game at 63 with 2:22 left, but then fouled E. Victor Nickerson, who made two free throws to give Charlotte a 65-63 lead with 1:16 to go.
Vinson had a chance to tie the game again 16 seconds later when he was fouled, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one. Williams then fouled Willie Clayton on the other end, and after he made 1 of 2 free throws, Williams found space and scored a layup to get UMass back within one with 17.2 seconds left.
Nickerson then went back to the stripe trying to make it a three-point game, but he missed both, and the Minutemen raced the other way looking for the winning bucket. Williams didn’t get the foul call as he was stripped in the paint with four seconds to go.
“I think I got fouled, but I’m not going to put the game in the ref’s hands there,” Williams said in an interview with UMassAthletics.com.
UMass struggled immensely from the free throw line, going just 6-of-16 from the stripe, including a 0-for-3 output by Riley. In such a tight game on the road, Kellogg was aware of that number’s value to the outcome.
“The reality of it is we lost the game at the free throw line,” Kellogg said. “I thought that was one of the more physical teams we’ve played and they called more ticky-tack stuff instead of the real, physical stuff in the post, which wasn’t really conducive for UMass basketball.”
UMass had the lead for most of the first half, and led by as many as five with 5:30 to go. But the 49ers went on a 13-5 run over the last five minutes of the half and took a 34-31 lead into the halftime break.
Vinson scored 15 first-half points for the Minutemen as they tried to overcome foul trouble from Lalanne, Maxie Esho and Raphiael Putney, who each finished the half with two fouls. UMass finished the game with 24 fouls, although no one fouled out.
It was a bounce back game for Vinson, who had failed to score in double figures in each of his previous three games.
“I think those types of games where it’s more physical and there’s a lot more holding and grabbing and guys getting a little more physical in the post, he plays better that way,” Kellogg said of Vinson. “That’s his kind of style.”
Williams finished with 16 points and three assists for UMass, which will now head home for a pair of games at the Mullins Center this week. The Minutemen host rival Rhode Island on Wednesday night before welcoming Saint Joseph’s on Saturday afternoon in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.