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December 28, 2016

UMass basketball runs out of comeback mojo against George Washington

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

NEW YORK- As the Massachusetts men’s basketball team skidded through the second half of Friday’s 85-77 loss to George Washington, there was an initial sense of optimism throughout the Barclays Center.

By now, 32 games into the season, the Minutemen have created a precedent. The path to victory – a path they’ve traveled consistently – hasn’t always been the most suggested route or efficient process. UMass forced itself to become creative, using a variety of second half comebacks and leaning on various scoring outburst to put it in position to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years.

So it wasn’t a surprise when fans and players alike stirred as UMass cut the deficit to eight points in the second half on a Chaz Williams 3-pointer with six minutes, 46 seconds remaining. After the Minutemen erased an 11-point deficit just a night ago against Rhode Island, there was a sense they’d stick to that same type of rallying script.

“The pace was where we needed it to be for a while,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “I haven’t been in one of those (games) in a while now where we didn’t take advantage of it.”

Instead, UMass finally ran out of magic, in turn running into a building mountain of frustration.

The Minutemen committed 17 turnovers. They shot 43 percent, but went just 7-of-24 on 3-pointers against a Colonials 1-3-1 zone which restricted dribble-drive penetration. And as the second half unfolded, optimism transformed into outward frustration from both coaches and players.

“I think our staff and even the players were a little more tense than normal,” Kellogg said.

The frustration built as time ticked down and the prospect of coming back became minimal. Dejection, anger and confusion riddled the Minutemen bench.

On the court, the outcome wasn’t much prettier. UMass struggled to generate stops defensively, allowing George Washington to shoot 50 percent from the floor and 9-of-21 on 3-pointers. The Colonials’ lead swelled to as many as 18 points and sat comfortably in the teens for most of the second half.

“It hurts a lot more when you’re trying to make stops and then you’re stopping (George Washington) and then here they come with a nice run,” Minutemen guard Chaz Williams said.

In a game mired by frustration, the ultimate display came at the very end of the first half. UMass cut a 37-27 deficit to just 35-31 with 43 seconds remaining, seizing precious momentum. But the Minutemen allowed Colonials guard Nick Griffin to hit a 3-pointer. On the ensuing rebound, Raphiael Putney turned it over, as Maurice Creek stole the inbound. The play resulted in an Isaiah Armwood layup and a 40-31 George Washington halftime lead.

“Really what was difficult was, honestly, the end of the first half,” Kellogg said. “That drove me to insanity…a couple of non-smart basketball plays gave them momentum going into halftime.”

And when the pace of the game quickened in the second half – a crucial component of every UMass comeback this season – the Minutemen yet again missed a chance to capitalize.

“We didn’t take advantage on a lot of opportunities we actually had,” Kellogg said. “We didn’t make the shots or the plays when we had gotten the game sped up.”

Oustide of Williams and reserve forward Maxie Esho, who combined for 41 points, UMass received little output offensively. Sampson Carter, Raphiael Putney and Cady Lalanne combined for 10 points in 69 minutes. For a team on the verge of an NCAA Tournament appearance, the frustrating performance raises a bevy of concerns.

Now, the Minutemen must look to rebound quickly. Kellogg already has a “demeanor” in mind.

“We’re gonna be loose, but we’re gonna be sharp,” Kellogg said. “We’re gonna play the way we need to play. That’s happening. Whether we win or lose, I hope we win. But they’re going to take on the way I want their personalities and mental approach to be.”

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

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