AMHERST - An optimistic University of Massachusetts basketball fan might view it as a win-win. Not for the Minutemen and their visitors from the University of Rhode Island - only one team can win on the court - but for the home fans. They got to watch their team play an entertaining, if at times frenetic, game to win the final contest of the regular season, 89-83, yesterday afternoon at the Mullins Center.
And even before the first half had played out, the 7,501 in attendance learned this wouldn’t be the last time this season the Minutemen will step onto the home hardwood, where they are 14-1 this season.
As out-of-town scores came trickling in, it quickly became apparent that UMass would not secure one of the first-round Atlantic 10 tournament byes awarded to the top four teams in the standings.
The Minutemen (20-10, 9-7) finished in a four-way tie for fifth place, were seeded eighth in the tourney because of tiebreakers, and will take the Mullins Center court Tuesday at 7 p.m. against No. 9 seed Duquesne. Back in mid-January, UMass fell to the Dukes by 11 points in Pittsburgh.
The season finale was Senior Night, and the Minutemen’s lone senior starter, Sean Carter, made it an occasion to celebrate, scoring a career-high 22 points. It wasn’t merely how many he scored, however, but when and how he scored them.
Rhode Island (7-24, 4-12 for 13th place in the A-10) had just gone on an 11-0 run midway through the second half to turn a double-digit deficit into a tie game with 9:33 to go when Carter put a halt to the visitors and put UMass back ahead - with gusto.
He grabbed one of his seven offensive rebounds (the 6-foot-9-inch big body had 10 boards overall) and went back up in traffic, missed the shot but came down with the rebound, then scored, was fouled, and hit the free throw. The next time the Minutemen had the ball, Carter took a feed from Javorn Farrell underneath, hit the shot, and again was fouled. This time he missed the freebie, but he’d built the UMass cushion to 5 points.
URI scored the game’s next 6 points, however, with a pair of free throws by Orion Outerbridge (24 points) giving the Rams a 72-71 lead with 6:48 to go. But UMass then went on a clinching 14-0 run fueled in large part by more blue-collar work underneath by Carter, who twice was fouled on putbacks. He completed an old-fashioned 3-point play on one and later hit a pair from the line to punctuate the Minutemen rally, making it 85-72, with a little more than three minutes left.
“Sean was unreal,’’ said coach Derek Kellogg, a 20-game winner for the first time in four seasons on the UMass bench. “That was the best game he’s played since he’s been here. I especially liked that last block, because they had a layup and he kind of sealed the victory.’’
The coach was talking about a URI fast break with two minutes left, when Carter appeared out of nowhere to block a seemingly open layup by Billy Baron.
From there, it became a free throw-shooting contest. Chaz Williams, too quick to trap without fouling, missed three of four but then nailed a pair to douse the Rams’ faint hopes after they’d crept within 7 with a more than a minute left.
Williams, the team’s leading scorer, had an uneven game, putting up 16 of his 19 points in the second half after shooting 1 of 6 before intermission. No. 2 scorer Raphiael Putney also had a quiet afternoon offensively, with 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting.
But their fellow sophomore, Jesse Morgan, picked up the slack in a big way. He scored a career-high 25 points on 9-of-9 shooting, including 6 of 6 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Morgan was asked after the game if he’d ever before had a perfect shooting night.
“Not in an actual game,’’ he said with a quiet laugh, “but in working out, practicing, I’ve hit a couple in a row.’’
Kellogg knows what his sharp-shooting guard is talking about. “What he is, is a gym rat,’’ said the coach. “I look out my [office] window, and Jesse Morgan is in there shooting. I tell the guys that if you’re a worker, it pays dividends.’’