NEW YORK — Chaz Williams and the Massachusetts men’s basketball team refused to be sent home.
Down three with seven minutes, 17 seconds to go, Williams took matters into his own hands with eight straight points to take a 65-64 lead as UMass never relinquished back the lead, racing past Temple, 79-74, Friday night in the Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals in front of 7,384 at the Barclays Center.
The sixth-seeded Minutemen (21-10) advance to face No. 2 seed Virginia Commonwealth (25-7) Saturday at 4 p.m. in the A-10 Semifinals.
Williams finished with a game-high 28 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line. The junior did his most damage late, with 16 points in the second half as he continued to attack the basket possession after possession.
“I was just basically doing what the team needs me to do,” Williams said. “We were kind of going on cold spells … so I just had to make plays.”
“Chaz Williams is one of the best players in the conference,” Temple guard Khalif Wyatt said. “He’s relentless and he definitely leads this group and he was real tough down the stretch and made some winning plays that helped his team to get over the edge.”
Wyatt, who was held in check all game long, hit a prayer from 3-point range to cut UMass’ lead to two with 57 seconds left. And with Williams on fire, the Owls (23-9) worked feverishly to deny the Brooklyn native the ball, forcing another Minuteman to provide the dagger.
Fortunately for UMass, Terrell Vinson is used to making big-time shots.
With the shot clock trickling down under three seconds, Vinson (15 points) pulled up from the corner and buried a triple with 26 seconds left to push the lead to five and ice the game.
The win moves UMass into the thick of the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation. But according to Williams, the Minutemen are a tournament team.
“It’s what we’re working for, trying to prove the world that (it’s) something we belong in,” Williams said. “We’ll just fight until we make it.”
Friday’s win marks the second straight year that UMass has topped Temple in the A-10 Quarterfinals.
The Owls looked to be pulling away with a five-point lead with 9:39 to go, forcing UMass coach Derek Kellogg to burn a timeout. But the next five minutes belonged to Williams, as he attacked the basket trip after trip, getting hit hard by the defense as he rose up to the hoop or being shoved to the floor after hitting jumpers.
“Growing up, I played football, so I’m kind of used to it,” Williams said of the contact. “My teammates, we go hard every day, so it’s something we’re kind of used to and (you) just gotta fall and get back up.”
Williams was gasping for air at the media timeout with 3:22 left, leaning up against a teammate as he walked to the team’s huddle. He admitted after the game he was “pretty exhausted” at that point and even asked to be taken out, but Kellogg left him in. He eventually got his rest less than a minute later when the Minutemen burned a timeout.
Freddie Riley added 15 points in the winning effort and nailed a crucial triple a minute before Vinson’s dagger to build a 71-66 lead.
Wyatt, the A-10’s Player of the Year, was held in check all game long, finishing with 19 points on 4-of-19 shooting, including a dismal 2-of-11 pace from beyond the arc.
UMass fixed its rebounding crisis in the win with a 40-23 advantage on the glass — 13-9 on the offensive boards — one day removed from a 50-32 disadvantage in that category in Thursday’s victory over George Washington. The Minutemen were far more active crashing the boards on both sides of the ball and were tougher maintaining possession on rebounds under the basket.
Kellogg said the rebounding numbers were attributed to Temple coach Fran Dunphy’s decision to play small with playing shooter Jake O’Brien (6-foot-9) at the center position to force Kellogg to sub out Cady Lalanne, who does most of his work under the basket. But Lalanne finished with eight boards regardless, with five coming on the offensive end.
“It was kind of a chess match with coach Dunphy that he was putting a shooter in there so we had to get Cady out of the game,” Kellogg said.
Friday’s tilt marks the final time the Owls and the Minutemen will meet as members of the A-10, as Temple leaves for the Big East next season. But the 66th and final round of the classic rivalry didn’t disappoint as neither side led by more than six during the contest.
As the final seconds clicked off the clock, the UMass cheering section started shouting about a rematch in the direction of the VCU coaching staff, including head coach Shaka Smart, whose seat on press row was located directly in front of the Minutemen faithful. The two sides met previously on Feb. 14 in an 86-68 Rams victory.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.