Last-second heroics goes in UMass’ favor in memorable win

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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P.J. Stanley / Collegian

PHILADELPHIA – Same story, different ending.

And what a storybook finish it was for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team ‘- in what had to be some of the loudest final two seconds in the storied 82-year history of the Palestra, known as the ‘Cathedral of College Basketball.’

As 6,522 hostile and screaming Saint Joseph’s fans tried everything they could to distract the foul shooter and protect a 1-point lead, Chris Lowe calmly sank two free throws to give the Minutemen a thrilling 70-69 victory over the Hawks Sunday afternoon.

‘Three dribbles, deep breath, bend your legs and follow-through,’ Lowe said, describing how to block out all the pressure, noise and St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli’s attempt to ice him. ‘And that’s what I did.’

Tony Gaffney knocked away the desperation in-bounds heave to seal the win for the Minutemen.

It was the type of game that UMass (10-15, 5-7 Atlantic 10) has come to dread this season, having lost more times than they care to count in the final minutes. And with the way things unfolded over the final minutes, it seemed inevitable once again.

After both Gaffney and Ricky Harris missed late 1-and-1s, it was Lowe ‘- who has had well-known problems with late free throws ‘- that had to step to the line with the pressure.

‘I just talked like he was making it ‘- [I told them] ‘When Chris makes this I’m going to call a timeout so don’t even worry about the defense quite yet, we’re going to knock it down, call a timeout and set up our defense,’ UMass coach Derek Kellogg said.

‘That’s what I went with. It’s kind of a trick [former UMass coach John who coached Kellogg as a player] Calipari used to use with us. He’d never mention that there’s ever a chance you’ll miss.’

With 6.4 seconds remaining it looked like Hawks guard Tasheed Carr ‘- and not Lowe ‘- was going to be the hero, after he also calmly hit both free throws to give the Hawks a 69-68 lead. But Gaffney’s in-bounds pass went to Lowe, who raced down the floor and drove the lane to draw a foul on Ahmad Nivins.

The Minutemen looked to be in a great position a few different times in the final minute.

Luke Bonner hit a 3-pointer with 48 seconds left to give the Minutemen a 66-65 lead. After Carr turned it over trying to pass it inside to Nivins ‘- who was knocked to the ground by Bonner ‘- Bonner made two free throws to put UMass ahead 68-65 with 17 seconds left.

But two free throws by Garrett Williamson, a careless turnover by Gaffney on the inbounds pass and Carr’s two foul shots quickly and shockingly gave the Hawks the lead and UMass was seemingly headed to another last-minute loss.

Not this time.

‘It’s hard to describe, it’s like the weight of the world has been lifted off of us,’ Gaffney said, reflecting on what has been a difficult past few weeks for the Minutemen.

‘We were desperate for a win ‘- we were like homeless people who beg ‘- we were begging for a win,’ Lowe added, who became UMass’ all-time leader in career assists, passing Carl Smith with 634 on his first assist of the game.

The Hawks (14-12, 7-5 A-10), who lost for the fourth straight game, shot 0-for-7 from 3-point range, ending a 495-game streak of making at least one 3-pointer. It also marked the nine-year anniversary since the last time a UMass opponent went a full game without one, which was Feb. 22, 2000 against Rhode Island.

UMass got contributions from just about everyone, as seven of the eight players who saw action scored at least five points. Gaffney led the way for the Minutemen with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Lowe (13 points, seven assists) and Harris (11 points) also scored in double figures.

Nivins had 21 points and 11 rebounds to pace the Hawks. He had almost the exact performance (21 points, 12 rebounds) in SJU’s 68-64 win over the Minutemen on Feb. 8 at the Mullins Center.

After finally breaking through, Gaffney sees this game as a turning point for the Minutemen, who sit in a tie for ninth place with La Salle in the conference standings.

‘It’s too bad that it has to be come this late in the season, but I think that our guys will feed off this and I think that we’re finally ready to make a run in
the conference,’ Gaffney said.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]