From the opening tip, it was clear as day that the Massachusetts men’s basketball team had highlight reel plays in its sight.
Raphiael Putney tipped the jump ball to Chaz Williams, who took two dribbles and lobbed the ball up to a streaking Putney, who grabbed the pass and tried to throw it down, but grabbed iron instead of net.
Despite the failed alley-oop attempt, it wouldn’t be the last time UMass attempted to bring the house down, as the Minutemen used a season high 10 dunks to sprint past Saint Joseph’s, 80-62, Saturday night at the Mullins Center.
“I thought today looked like UMass basketball,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said after the game. “We got some transition baskets, we shared the ball. … We need fast break points, we need transition baskets, and fortunately for us, (Saturday) we received those.”
The Minutemen (16-6, 6-3 Atlantic 10) ran early and often, storming out to a 14-0 edge in fast break points over a Hawks (13-9, 4-5 A-10) team that prefers to grind out possessions as opposed to sprinting frantically up and down the floor. Fourteen turnovers came back to haunt SJU as well, which led to another 14 points for UMass.
“That is an Achilles’ heel with our team,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “We’re not very fast, and we got hurt by the speed, particularly the last four or five minutes of the first half.”
Five Minutemen participated in the sudden dunk contest, but the throw-down of the night belonged to Maxie Esho.
With eight minutes, 52 seconds left in the first half, Williams worked his way around a ball screen at the top of the key, then darted back to the left and attacked the paint. As the defense committed to Williams, Esho darted from the corner to the basket behind the collapsed SJU defense, and Williams served him a perfect helper as Esho grabbed the ball with his back to the basket and slammed home a reverse dunk that brought the student section and Mullins faithful to life.
After the slam, Williams looked to the packed student section and let out a scream as the crowd erupted.
Kellogg thinks those type of plays will keep the students coming back to watch, as the Minutemen continue to strive for a packed house for every home game.
“We’ve been trying to get a good student section here for a long time,” Kellogg said. “Obviously, it’s getting better, it’s building, it’s getting better, and to have that many students here tonight and actually have some dunks and hear them get excited, hopefully they’ll come back. That’s what it comes down to.”
But it’s not only the fans that enjoy the above-the-rim action; players, like Sampson Carter, like to think of dunks as knockout punches against the opposition.
“Teams don’t want to get dunked on, and it gets the crowd involved and everybody gets excited, we pull closer together, so I think it does a lot to teams,” Carter said.
But it turned out Esho wasn’t done demoralizing the Hawks.
After a Freddie Riley layup bumped UMass’ lead back to eight with 10:03 remaining in the contest, Vinson intercepted the ensuing inbound pass and laid a perfect lob to Esho, who corralled it with his right hand and flushed it down one-handed to spark the Mullins into yet another frenzy. The sequence turned a once six-point game into a 10-point advantage and set the stage for the Minutemen’s dominating stretch to close out the game.
“When (Maxie’s) playing with good energy – which I had thought he did in that second half stretch there – he’s a valuable piece for us,” Kellogg said. “Especially when we’re pressing and running and getting the game up and down, his athleticism, his length, gives us another weapon out there.”
As for the rest of the UMass squad, they certainly enjoyed the exhilarating tempo of the game and play above the rim.
“It was a fun night,” Carter said. “Everybody got involved, we had a lot of fast break, easy ones, so it was a good night for everybody.”
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.