During last Wednesday’s Massachusetts men’s basketball practice at the Mullins Center, guard Freddie Riley had a message for coach Derek Kellogg.
The Minutemen were going through drills designed to prepare for Xavier 3-point specialist Brad Redford, and at one point, Kellogg called the Musketeers senior the best shooter in the Atlantic 10. After a slight pause, Kellogg corrected himself, saying, “except for you guys.”
But Riley didn’t appear to hear that correction.
“I’m the best shooter in the league,” Riley mumbled to himself as he got ready for the next drill.
“I said except for you guys,” Kellogg retorted.
On Saturday, it seemed like Riley was out to back up his claim.
The senior guard made six shots – all on 3-pointers, tying a career-high – as he contributed to a larger 13-for-25 team effort from downtown to help UMass to a crucial 77-72 road win over Xavier in front of 9,633 at the Cintas Center.
“I thought that might have been his best game of his career at UMass,” Kellogg said of Riley in a postgame interview. “I thought that was a very good performance for him, and really, I thought his shooting kind of won us the basketball game.”
Three-point shooting was the story for the Minutemen (18-9, 8-6 A-10), especially in the second half, when the team went 9-for-13 from long range, including five of Riley’s six triples.
Combined with Terrell Vinson, who scored a game-high 20 points, the duo connected on eight 3-pointers in the second half. Perhaps the biggest was Riley’s 3-pointer with 3 minutes, 11 seconds left that gave UMass a 74-68 cushion, which was enough to hold off the Musketeers (16-12, 8-6 A-10).
UMass was forced to overcome early foul trouble from star point guard Chaz Williams, who played just six minutes in the first half. He picked up his third foul of the game with 10:08 left in the first half and the Minutemen seemed to be in deep trouble as they trailed 20-11 at the time.
But freshman point guard Trey Davis more than answered the call. He immediately guided UMass to a 14-4 run aided by his two 3-pointers, including one that gave the Minutemen a brief 25-24 lead. Davis scored 10 first-half points on his way to tying his career-high with 12 and also finishing with six assists.
Kellogg said that, as strange as it sounds, Williams’ foul trouble ultimately helped his squad.
“I actually thought that was very good for us,” Kellogg said. “I thought Trey Davis gave us 10 points in the first half that gave us a boost. It was a good opportunity for a young freshman to come in and play.
“It also let Chaz be rested for the second half where I thought coming down the stretch he was able to get open and kind of controlled tempo and controlled the game.”
After trailing at halftime, UMass led for most of the second half and opened its advantage to as much as seven with 6:23 to go before the Musketeers quickly cut it back to three, which is as close as they would get.
The Minutemen also overcame poor free throw shooting – going just 10-for-20 from the stripe – and getting outrebounded, as Xavier secured 41 rebounds, 17 of which were on the offensive glass.
Freshman point guard Semaj Christon led the Musketeers with 17 points and six assists, while Isaiah Philmore added 14 points, Redford scored 13 and Travis Taylor chipped in 10 points and eight rebounds.
The win for UMass was its first over Xavier at the Cintas Center since Jan. 9, 2001, the season the arena opened.
The Minutemen return home for Senior Night on Thursday when they host Butler at the Mullins Center at 7 p.m.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.