UMass notches signature win, outlasts Saint Louis, 72-59

By Jackson Alexander

Maria Uminski/Collegian

On Saturday afternoon, 8,399 fans packed into the Mullins Center to see the Massachusetts men’s basketball team win its biggest game in recent memory.

The Minutemen (16-5, 5-2 Atlantic 10) used a monster first half to defeat Saint Louis (16-5, 4-3 A-10), 72-59, and move into a first place tie in the Atlantic 10 standings with La Salle and St. Bonaventure.
Sophomores Raphiael Putney and Chaz Williams led the way for UMass. Putney recorded a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and Williams scored 19 points, and iced the game down the stretch with some clutch free-throw shooting.
From the opening tip-off, it seemed as if the Minutemen had an extra hop in their step compared to the Billikens. In the first nine minutes of the game, the squad burst out of the gates and gained a 20-14 advantage, with every basket electrifying the raucous crowd.
“I thought the crowd and the student section being the way it was really gave our team a boost, they were excited to come to the locker room and see those people out there,” said Kellogg.
Over the next five minutes, UMass opened up a double-digit lead as the momentum began to shift entirely to the Minutemen’s side.
They continued to pour it on to SLU, seemingly making every shot, and embarked on a 13-2 run to end the half, making the halftime score 45-26.
Putney scored 17 of his 22 points in the first half. The wiry forward scored his points on a variation of alley-oop dunks, floaters, driving layups, and long 3-pointers.
“He can knock down threes, he can take it to the rim, and he can offensive and defensive rebound,” said Kellogg of Putney.
In the first 20 minutes of play, the Minutemen shot 65.5 percent from the field and went 5-for-7 on 3-pointers against one of the best defensive teams in the nation. The 45 first half points allowed by the Billikens was a season-high by a large margin.
“I’m really happy and proud of the team today,” said Kellogg. “I thought in the first half we were as sharp as we’ve been all year.”
As well as the Minutemen played in the first half, they came out flat in the second half, turning the ball over three times in just over a minute.
SLU countered with sloppy play of its own and couldn’t make much of a dent in UMass’ colossal lead off the bat.
However, the shots began to drop, and slowly, SLU crept its way back into contention. With 10 minutes and 35 seconds remaining, the Billikens finally cut inside 10 points on a basket by Mike McCall Jr.
An already nervous UMass crowd became even more restless when SLU continued to slice into the lead. With just over five minutes left, back-to-back buckets by Jordair Jett (13 points) and Brian Conklin (17 points) made the score uncomfortably close, at 56-51.
This had been a familiar sight for Minutemen Coach Derek Kellogg, who, prior to the game, had studied SLU on tape. He cited a game versus Charlotte in which the Billikens turned a 13-point deficit into a lead in a short time period.
“In the back of my mind, I was trying to use timeouts and kind of conjure up some plays to not have that happen,” said Kellogg.
On the next possession, UMass finally made the bleeding stop. With the shot clock winding down, SLU guard Kwamain Mitchell made a costly mistake, and fouled Williams from beyond the 3-point line. Williams converted on all three of his free throws, and from there, the Billikens couldn’t mount a comeback.
“Just like any good team that’s down at halftime, we knew that they were going to [come] with a big punch,” said Williams. “Coach always tells us, ‘it’s not about how you get hit, it’s about how you respond from getting hit.’ ”
Williams went 6-for-6 in the final two minutes from the line to put the game out of reach, and Sean Carter (12 points) threw down two thunderous dunks that sent the packed student section into hysterics.
“For our team to come out and play this well… I was proud of them, put it that way,” said Kellogg.
The 8,399 fans in attendance was easily the biggest turnout for a game this season, and it was also the most fans at a UMass home game since 2007, when 9,088 fans showed up for another Minutemen-Billikens showdown.
The Minutemen now have a golden opportunity to improve on their conference record against two struggling teams in the conference.
They’ll hit the road to face Rhode Island (4-18, 1-6 A-10) on Wednesday, and George Washington (8-13, 3-4 A-10) on Saturday.
Jackson Alexander can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Alexander.