NEW YORK – During its magical run in the National Invitation Tournament, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has hung its hat on its ability to close out games and outlast its opposition.
But last night in the NIT semifinals, the Minutemen got a taste of their own medicine.
UMass (25-12) scratched and clawed its way back to knot the game at 52 with seven minutes, 17 seconds left in the contest after playing catch-up for virtually its entirety. But the Minutemen went cold over the next 5:28, recording four points as Stanford pulled away with a 69-58 cushion en route to its 74-64 victory at Madison Square Garden.
The game seemed destined for a stellar finish as the Cardinal held a 58-55 lead with 4:10 left to play. However, things took a turn for the worse for UMass as Maxie Esho hauled in an offensive board off a Terrell Vinson missed free throw, but coughed up the ball directly under the basket. The turnover proved to be a huge swing in momentum as Stanford’s Anthony Brown finished an offensive board on the other end to build a five-point advantage and jumpstart a 9-1 Cardinal burst.
Had Esho put back Vinson’s miss, it would’ve been a one-point game. UMass coach Derek Kellogg said he felt that was the turning point in the game.
“We had great momentum. The crowd was into it. It was kind of going UMass basketball way and that took a little wind out of our sails,” said Kellogg.
Stanford did its part at the free throw line to deter another Minutemen comeback as UMass erased a 17-point deficit in their quarterfinals win over Drexel on March 20.
After Esho cut the deficit to six 1:07 to play, Dwight Powell made it a three-possession game after hitting one of two from the line.
Over the final 2:06, the Cardinal sank 11-for-14 from the stripe, neutralizing UMass’ desperate attempt to keep its season alive.
“That was a killer. Obviously you need some good breaks and bounces at the end and they just seemed to make two just about every time [at the free throw line],” said Kellogg.
Chaz Williams and company struggled in the crunch time sinking the tying bucket to knot the game at 52 at the 7:17 mark in the second half. The sophomore went 0-for-3 over the next 5:36 as Stanford reeled off a 15-4 run to give the Cardinal a comfortable cushion. As a whole, the Minutemen shot just 1-for-8 from the field during that stretch, including a pair of missed layups.
Early on in the second half, both sides were neck-and-neck. It was a one-possession game for the first 13 minutes of the final frame with the exception of a brief five-point Stanford lead that lasted just 53 seconds. But UMass couldn’t get over the hump, failing to capitalize on a number of possessions that could have tied the game or given the Minutemen the lead.
“[They were] just making the right plays, we made the wrong ones. Pretty simple,” said Sean Carter.
At the end of the day, UMass didn’t have the same magic as it’s been fortunate enough to have in its previous three NIT games. Against the Dragons on March 20 in the quarterfinals, the Minutemen shrugged off a 17-point deficit in less than 10 minutes to tie the game before continuing on to secure its 72-70 thrilling victory that wasn’t decided until the final possession.
UMass wasn’t as sharp down the stretch on Tuesday night as it has been throughout the season. There just wasn’t enough magic left in the bank for a Minutemen team that produced a plethora of magical moments this year.
But with the program on the rise, there appears to be plenty of magic headed towards UMass in the years to come.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Sellner.