Although the season is just one game old, one could only leave Curry Hicks Cage on Friday night feeling optimistic about the rest of the season.
The Massachusetts men’s basketball team won its season opener behind the efforts of newly acquired point guard Chaz Williams. The sophomore poured in a game-high 18 points and orchestrated a furious second half comeback giving UMass a 85-67 win over Elon.
Williams led four Minutemen in double-figures and added eight assists, six rebounds, and three steals.
“To see Chaz play the way he did tonight was I guess comforting as much as anything to know that when the ball’s in his hands you at least feel something good’s going to happen,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg.
Juniors Sampson Carter and Terrell Vinson (11 rebounds) each registered 17 points off the bench, while Javorn Farrell added 13 for UMass.
The Minutemen erased a 43-39 halftime deficit, and outscored Elon 46-24 in the second half.
Kellogg opted to utilize his veterans in the second half as Vinson and Carter combined to score 26 second-half points.
“What I really did in the second half was went with the older guys, the more mature players and the guys that could persevere through a few more lumps and it was nice to see those guys respond,” said Kellogg.
UMass made the first five minutes for the Phoenix uncomfortable as its press forced them into a stretch in which Elon turned the ball over three times in four possessions, leading to an 8-2 Minutemen lead.
The press caused all kind of chaos for Elon as it committed 25 turnovers. Williams credited the effectiveness of the press to adjustments in practice.
“The press has come a long way,” said Williams. “Since the last scrimmage coach made some adjustments and I felt like the adjustments he made were the right [ones].”
With 12 minutes remaining in the half, Williams nearly brought the house down when he executed back-to-back alley-oop passes, the first to Sampson Carter, the second to Sean Carter, extending the UMass lead eight.
“He made some passes today that we haven’t seen in a couple years here,” said Kellogg regarding Williams.
However, an encouraging first half took a turn for the worst mid-way through the second half. Sophomore Raphiael Putney had just come up with another steal and was streaking in the opposite direction for an easy two, when Elon’s Jack Isenbarger tugged Putney to the ground by his jersey. Putney hit the ground hard and appeared to injure his head on the play. The injury was substantial enough to force him out of the remainder of the game.
The Minutemen were leading 27-24 at the time of the play, but after Putney’s departure, the Phoenix outscored UMass 19-12 for the rest of the half, taking a 43-39 lead.
UMass was bogged down by poor shooting in the first half, as it made only 40 percent of its shots and went just 2-for-12 from 3-point range.
However, once the Minutemen stepped on the court in the second half, Elon had no chance. After an Elon basket started the second half, UMass reeled off 13 straight points, and took a seven point lead.
Williams was magisterial during that stretch, scoring three points, and adding four assists, many of which left the crowd wondering what it had just witnessed.
“As much as I was coaching the game, it was enjoyable to watch him play,” said Kellogg. “When he really started to give the ball up he was so much better and he scored more.”
With 16 minutes remaining, and the lead at five, the Minutemen went on a 25-8 run over the next 11 minutes, extending their lead to 24 and putting the game out of reach for the Phoenix.
The Minutemen improved their shooting percentages in every aspect during the second half, shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point land and 72.5 percent from the free-throw line.
Elon was led by Lucas Troutman (15 points), while Drew Spradlin (14 points) and Austin Hamilton (12) each reached double-digits as well.
“It’s just one game in the course of many, but obviously I’m pleased with the result,” said Kellogg.
The Minutemen will play their second game of the season on Monday night, when Northeastern comes to town.
The game will be the first of the season played at the Mullins Center and begins at 7 p.m.
Northeastern is coming off of a thrilling 82-74 overtime win over Boston University.
Joel Smith led four Huskies in double-digits with 20 points, while Reggie Spencer added 16, Kauri Black registered 12 and Jonathon Lee chipped in 11.
Northeastern graduated last year’s leading scorer Chaisson Allen, leaving Smith and Lee to carry the scoring load, a task they appear prepared for.
The Huskies are looking to bounce back after going just 11-20 and finishing tied for 9th in their conference last season.
Jackson Alexander can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Alexander.