It had happened so many times that it became predictable.
With 17.6 seconds left, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team was down one with the ball, a situation it has become quite familiar with over the course of a season that has been full of last-second victories.
But on Saturday night against Temple, all of those down-to-the-wire wins may have finally caught up to the Minutemen. After so many games in which UMass has executed those final plays to perfection, it became clear that the Owls had taken notice.
For the Minutemen, the game plan was simple: They would pass the ball to point guard Chaz Williams, who would come off a ball screen at the top of the key and then try to make the winning play by either driving in for a layup or kicking it to an open shooter.
But the Owls knew it was coming.
First, they double-teamed Williams on the initial inbounds play, denying him the ball and forcing Terrell Vinson to call timeout.
The Minutemen got it to Williams on the second try, but he couldn’t do anything with it. After the screen, he tried to find an opening, but nothing was there. The ball was stripped and found the hands of Freddie Riley, who made a move to his left across the lane. But instead of going up for a shot as time was expiring, tried to make a backdoor pass to Williams, and the Owls were all over it as they tipped the ball loose and the game clock hit triple zeroes.
Temple coach Fran Dunphy designed his final possession defense around Williams.
“You’re just thinking that Chaz is going to get the ball. Who wouldn’t give Chaz the ball, as (UMass coach Derek Kellogg) would do,” Dunphy said. “He’s just going to go try to make a play. We’re trying – everybody but Anthony Lee – we’re going to switch on to Chaz and try to help as much as we can on the weak side and just hope he doesn’t have one of those floaters in the lane that buries us.
“Because we’re decent-sized with speed and quickness with (Scootie) Randall and (Rahlir) Hollis-Jefferson, I feel confident that they can guard even somebody like Chaz, not for a whole game, but on one possession.”
Kellogg agreed that his last-second offensive strategy had become stale and an advantage for opponents. On Saturday night, he said he talked in the huddle about trying to get Williams to try and draw a foul on Lee, who had been jumping out on screens all game, but UMass didn’t get a call.
Either way, he said that going forward he’ll look into making adjustments for last-second situations. It was the second time in a row that his strategy didn’t pay off. Two weeks ago at Charlotte, Williams was stripped driving to the lane as UMass also lost by one.
“I think it was obvious we were probably going to run a ball screen one way or another,” Kellogg said. “I think they have a pretty good indication of what we’re going to try to do, and I think at this point, we may add a wrinkle or two just to mix it up a little bit.”
Khalif Wyatt takes over
It seemed like it was just going to be a matter of time before Temple guard Khalif Wyatt would heat up Saturday night.
The Atlantic 10’s leading scorer, who entered averaging 19.6 points per game, was held to only 2-of-9 shooting and seven points in the first half, as the Minutemen swarmed and made life difficult on him.
It was a different story in the second half, though. The UMass defense was still collapsing on him and forcing him into difficult shots, but he just kept making them as the Minutemen sent all different players to try to stop him. Wyatt scored 17 points in the second half, including five 3-pointers, as he finished with a game-high 24 points.
“He was firing balls that looked they were going to hit the top of the Mullins that went in,” Kellogg said. “He makes tough shots. He’s one of those guys that when he’s missing them, you’re like, ‘That’s a tough, sometimes maybe a bad shot,’ but when they go in, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a big-time shot,’ and he made a lot of big-time plays.”
UMass-Temple rivalry comes to an end
It seemed fitting that the last conference regular season game between UMass and Temple would end in thrilling fashion.
The storied rivalry between the two schools, which dates back to 1983 but really heated up during the early 1990s, will now come to an end, at least within the A-10. The Owls are leaving the conference for the Big East next season.
Kellogg, who played for UMass when the rivalry was at its peak in the 90’s, said he hopes a new rivalry can begin with another school within the conference.
“The fans I think, the ones who have been here from the 90’s and the people in the administration, I think really appreciate the rivalry,” Kellogg said. “But as times change, new rivalries are starting to unfold and we’re just going to have to move on and try to find somebody else to have one-point games with every 20 years.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.