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UMass men’s basketball edges St. Joe’s in Atlantic 10 opener

It was the type of play Massachusetts men’s basketball guard Chaz Williams has come to expect from his roommate Maxie Esho. In fact, it was the type of play Williams has fallen victim to firsthand.

Trailing 62-61 with just 63 seconds remaining, Esho aggressively pressured Saint Joseph’s freshman forward DeAndre Bembry in the Hawks backcourt. As Bembry attempted to maneuver around Esho and move up the floor, he exposed the ball, a habit Esho had both picked up on and been beaten by throughout the course of the game.

This time, he adjusted.

Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

It was a textbook pickpocket. In an instant, Esho deflected the careless dribble in the opposite direction and sidestepped Bembry. The only obstacle between Esho and a ferocious two-handed slam to provide his team a 63-62 lead was Mullins Center hardwood floor.

“It’s pretty funny because I spoke to (Esho) before the game about playing 1-on-1, me and him play 1-on-1 a lot,” Williams said. “So I tell him if you can check me, you can check anybody on the floor. And when he got that steal I just knew it was something he could do.

“I don’t want to tell you guys, but he picked me the other day in practice and it was something similar, so I understand that’s just Maxie being Maxie.”

Esho’s steal came after reading how St. Joe’s had attacked him off-the-dribble earlier in the game.

“They were just rocking with or playing with the ball instead of going by me,” he said. “It was kind of working for them (early in the game) just going right by me, but they played with the ball.”

Esho’s impact reached far beyond his go-ahead dunk off the steal in the Minutemen’s 66-62 win over the Hawks (9-5, 0-1 Atlantic 10) in their Atlantic 10 opener Wednesday night. He added 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting for UMass (13-1, 1-0 A-10) to go with two steals and was the sparkplug for momentum throughout most of the game, especially in the closing moments.

Following Esho’s steal, Hawks guard Langston Galloway missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 37 seconds left. The ensuing rebound resulted in a loose ball under the basket which Minutemen guard Trey Davis eventually secured, diving through a tangled assortment of arms and legs to come up with the ball.

The defensive intensity persisted, with Williams making an impact on the final Hawks possession.

Leading 65-62 after two Davis free throws, Kellogg assigned Williams to cover Galloway, who scored 18 points on the night on 7-of-14 shooting. Williams harassed Galloway enough to force St. Joe’s into going to a secondary option, which ultimately resulted in a wild 3-point attempt by Papa Ndao.

“It was a challenge,” Williams said. “I love challenges, I just want to guard the best player on the other team.”

It was a performance Kellogg’s come to expect.

“If you watch us over the years, especially this year at the end of games, Chaz really does a great job of getting on the best guard on the other team and making it hard on them,” Kellogg said.

Of course, no vintage Williams performance would be complete without offensive heroics. It was Williams who shouldered the brunt of the scoring load after UMass fell behind 57-48 with 6:23 to go.

He made a pair of free throws to cut the lead to seven. He nailed a 3-pointer to cut the St. Joe’s lead to just 59-56. And his layup with 1:50 remaining cut the lead to 62-61. All of this came as Williams played to a raucous Mullins Center crowd. He finished with 22 points.

“Those are the plays we’ve come accustomed to from a guy, I think, (is) the best player in the conference,” Kellogg said. “At times he puts our team on his back and makes huge plays and he did that again (Wednesday).”

It was by no means pretty for Kellogg’s squad, which trailed for long stretches of the game and struggled to hit shots from the field. The Minutemen shot 43.6 percent from the floor but missed 10 3-pointers, finishing 5-of-15 from beyond the arc.

UMass also struggled to contain Hawks forward Halil Kanacevic, who scored 19 points, added 13 rebounds and chipped in six assists while playing the entire game.

But the Minutemen found their spark at the end of the game and pulled out a tough conference victory, something which may be indicative or what’s to come in a deep conference. They held St. Joe’s to just five points over the final 6:23.

“The will to win at the end was nice though,” Kellogg said. “I think when you’re gonna try to do something special, you gotta win some games where things don’t go perfect.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

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