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UMass basketball edges URI in free-throw shooting battle, 70-67

Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

Taylor C. Snow/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team outlasted a pesky Rhode Island offensive attack on Wednesday, edging the Rams 70-67 as a free throw battle broke out in a physical matchup at Mullins Center.

It wasn’t UMass’ (22-5, 9-4 Atlantic 10 Conference) prettiest display of basketball – the team shot just 28.9 percent from the floor in the first half and trailed by as many as 13 points – but the Minutemen found enough momentum offensively to pull away with the victory. Chaz Williams led the turnaround with 16 points, 11 of which came in the second frame.

Both teams combined for 31 fouls in the second half, and most possessions ended in free throws down the stretch. Ten of the Minutemen’s final 14 points came at the charity stripe, and the team finished with 31 free throw attempts to the Rams’ 18.

“It was great,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “We’ve been shooting a lot of free throws in practice, so it’s good to see the stuff you work on carry over to the game and actually have some value.”

The Minutemen trailed 60-56 with 4:46 remaining. But a pair of free throws from Raphiael Putney and a layup from Derrick Gordon brought UMass even. Both teams exchanged free throws until Gordon cut across the lane and finished an acrobatic right-handed layup to make it 66-64 with 1:36 left.

Gordon, who finished with nine points on 4-of-10 shooting, didn’t shy away from big shots with the game still up in the air.

“My confidence keeps building and building every game,” he said. “I just look at it as: If I miss a shot, I’m gonna keep shooting. I’m not gonna miss a shot and get down on myself, because that’s when I start playing bad.”

Rhode Island (12-17, 3-11 A-10) gained possession of the ball with 24 seconds remaining, trailing 68-65. But guard Xavier Munford’s layup attempt was partially blocked by UMass center Cady Lalanne and ricocheted to Sampson Carter, effectively ending the game.

For stretches of time, it appeared as if the Minutemen were headed for trouble yet again. They led just 31-30 at halftime, and looked out of sync offensively.

But UMass ignited the second half, reeling off eight straight emphatic points in the first minute and 50 seconds. The run was highlighted by two Putney alley-oop dunks and a Williams 3-pointer. It was the type of quick-hitting offense that could quell concerns arisen from such a frustrating first half.

“At halftime, we were just talking about how we had to come out strong in the first four minutes,” Gordon said. “We threw the first punch and we capitalized on a lot of points we should’ve capitalized on in the first half.”

But the Rams returned fire, cutting the Minutemen’s lead to 46-45 with 11:52 remaining off a Gilvydas Biruta layup, setting up a close finish. He finished with 17 points and eight rebounds in 33 minutes.

UMass outrebounded Rhode Island 41-28, including 18 offensive rebounds. Gordon led the Minutemen with 10 rebounds from the guard spot, often keeping offensive possessions alive when Kellogg opted to play a smaller lineup with more guards on the floor.

“I thought we scrapped on the boards,” Kellogg said. “I did think the guys did a nice job of crashing the glass on both ends of the floor.”

The Minutemen held the Rams’ duo of scoring guards, Xavier Munford and E.C. Matthews, in check. Munford finished with 16 on 7-of-18 shooting while Matthews chipped in 14.

UMass returns to action on Saturday against Dayton at 11 a.m..

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

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