UMass prevails in crunch time

By Stephen Sellner

Hannah Cohen/Collegian

If the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has proved anything in the 2011 season to date, it’s the fact that the team can mount big leads in a hurry.

What had yet to be determined was whether or not the Minutemen could make the necessary plays down the stretch in order to earn hard-fought victories.

That was until Tuesday night as UMass (7-3) took a big step forward in that department in its 63-58 win over East Carolina.

The Minutemen watched as the Pirates turned a 19-point deficit into a one-point game with 40 seconds remaining. UMass had to salvage the victory from the free throw line, which good teams have to do during the course of a season.

As the schedule turns to Atlantic 10 play starting in January, the Minutemen will likely come across contests decided in the final minute. The team can now turn to Tuesday’s win for encouragement and reassurance that they can’t only win in blowout fashion but by making shots and key plays down the stretch.

In its first six wins, UMass had won by a whopping average margin of 22.5 points. While they looked impressive during that stretch, questions still remained about whether the Minutemen had the mental toughness to right the ship when things went awry.

After Raphiael Putney’s free throw made it a two-point game, the sophomore missed the second attempt. But a timely offensive rebound by senior Sean Carter gave UMass another chance to extend the lead and more importantly keep the ball out of East Carolina’s possession as it looked to tie or take the lead.

And when the Minutemen needed a play most, they got one from their spark plug point guard Chaz Williams when he pick-pocketed Miguel Paul, ultimately leading to a Putney free throw to make it a two-possession game, which secured the win.

In order for UMass’ winning ways to continue, it will find itself in games similar to this one and the team that makes the most plays down the stretch emerges on top.

Most good programs can win even when they’re not at their best, which the Minutemen were far from in the second half.

Thirteen turnovers in the second half –five coming from Williams – allowed the Pirates back into the game.

UMass has fought through adversity before, as the Minutemen have been able to string off runs of their own to put an end to the opposition’s momentum and swing it in their favor, ultimately rebuilding their giant leads.

But Tuesday marked the first time that UMass found itself in the final minute of play, where the team who played the best in crunch time would prevail.

The Minutemen players were more discouraged than jubilant after the game for obvious reasons.

Williams said in a UMassAthletics.com interview that he and the rest of the team felt frustrated about their play in the second half.

In the long term, however, the win could serve as a game to point towards during times of adversity towards the end of the season as UMass enters the A-10 tournament and tries to secure an at-large bid into March Madness.

The Minutemen look to put forth a full 40-minute performance on Friday night as they host Siena in Springfield in the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.