It was an all too familiar story with the Massachusetts men’s basketball team this season.
Get out to a fast start, get a sizable halftime lead and let it all slip away in the matter of minutes in the second half before somehow prevailing in the closing minutes.
On Wednesday night at the Mullins Center, it looked like the story had a chance to repeat itself against Rhode Island. The Minutemen held a 10-point halftime lead, but the Rams seemed to take over momentum at the end of the first half when guard Xavier Munford drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
But instead of letting the lead slip away, like it has so many times this season, UMass put its foot on the gas pedal – and in a hurry. In the matter of two minutes, 28 seconds, the Minutemen went on a 10-0 run, doubling their lead to 20 and never looking back in an 81-53 blowout victory over the Rams.
“It feels great,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “It was good to see because I told those guys if you keep the lead going in the right way, you’ll continue to play, you won’t come out. So, maybe that’s a little bit of incentive for them.
“I thought that was the best start to a half that we’ve had all year.”
The Minutemen didn’t wait long in the second half to get it going as Freddie Riley hit a turnaround jumper just 14 seconds in. He was followed by a Terrell Vinson layup and back-to-back Chaz Williams 3-pointers, which grew the lead to 51-31 with 17:32 remaining.
The key according to Kellogg, was defensive rebounding. UMass put together three consecutive stops on the defensive end out of the intermission and made sure to clean up the glass and get out on the break.
“I actually thought (Raphiael Putney) did a really nice job defensive rebounding to start the second half,” Kellogg said. “If we can get in transition with clean defensive rebounds, I think that’s much more beneficial for our team.”
The Rams responded with a 5-0 run of their own, but it was much easier for UMass to weather those kinds of storms with a large lead in hand. URI never cut its deficit to closer than 13 points as the Minutemen piled it on and came away with their largest margin of victory and their third double-digit victory of the season.
Riley said it was important to not let the lead slip away and make it another down-to-the-wire game, something that has been a theme for UMass all season along.
“That’s something we talked about in the locker room at halftime, too,” Riley said. “I told everybody that we need to stop playing in so many close games so we can get some rest. We don’t have a lot of guys, so we need to get as much rest as we can.”
The second-half run was a breath of fresh air for the Minutemen, who have allowed sizable halftime leads to evaporate in the matter of minutes in several games this season.
Notably, UMass allowed a 14-point halftime advantage against Fordham eventually dwindle to two points before escaping with a win, and let a 14-point halftime lead to Duquesne minimize to three before pulling away late.
The Minutemen have done a better job of late in weathering opponents’ runs out of the second half, but going into Wednesday, had never really delivered the knockout blow to put the game out of reach immediately out of the break all season.
On Wednesday night, they finally did that, and the special attention paid recently to playing strong out of halftime paid off in what was a must-have game for UMass.
“We wanted to just come out with a lot of effort,” Riley said. “And come out obviously with what we’ve been doing for the rest of these games, so it was a good effort for us … it just worked.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.