ATLANTIC CITY - With five seconds remaining in Saturday’s Atlantic 10 Conference semifinal clash against St. Bonaventure and his team trailing by 2 points at Boardwalk Hall, the lean, 6-foot-8-inch frame of University of Massachusetts sophomore forward Raphiael Putney rose up and launched a 3-point shot he has practiced many times.
For a moment, time stood still in this 24-hour, always-turned-on town as the shot arched high and soared toward the basket like one of the boardwalk seagulls honing in on its lunch.
But it bounced off the rim. And with it, UMass got bounced via an 84-80 loss to the Bonnies.
The victory pushed St. Bonaventure (19-11) into its first appearance in the A-10 final Sunday at 1 p.m. against Xavier, and left the Minutemen wondering what could have been.
“I thought it was in,’’ UMass coach Derek Kellogg said of Putney’s shot. “I was envisioning in my head how I was going to run on the court after it went in. I’m a destiny guy and I thought the ball was in because he hadn’t played as well as he has been playing.
“And the funny thing is I’m here talking to you guys and I’m still envisioning it going in. Guess I’m just one of those crazy basketball coaches.’’
What made this game crazy for UMass was that it could never seem to capture the offense it had in its quarterfinal win Friday against Temple. The Bonnies imposed their will at both ends of the floor until the last five minutes, when a furious comeback by the Minutemen set the stage for Putney’s drama.
UMass trailed, 74-63, with 4:39 left, and 77-68 with 2:31 left. But St. Bonaventure, ranked fifth in the country in foul shooting, missed six attempts in the last 2:31 to fuel the UMass comeback.
A 3-pointer by Chaz Williams (12 points), two foul shots by Jesse Morgan, and a put-back by Putney cut the deficit to 77-75 with 1:38 left. And when St. Bonaventure’s Charlon Kloof missed the second of two foul shots with 14 seconds left and the Bonnies’ lead was down to 82-80, UMass went for the kill on Putney’s 3-point attempt.
“Sometimes, it’s luck,’’ Kellogg said. “If that ball goes in we’re talking about advancing and playing the next game.’’
Now UMass (22-11) can maybe talk about an invitation to the NIT.
“I don’t want to sound like a bracketologist, but I think our body of work is pretty good and the kids deserve [the NIT],’’ Kellogg said. “We play in one of the best conferences in the country and we are a fun team to watch. Why wouldn’t you want to watch this team play a couple of more games?’’
St. Bonaventure will make its first appearance in the A-10 final largely due to the efforts of forward Demitrius Conger, who had 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists. Conger also was huge defensively, as he seemed to always be waiting for Williams when he came off a screen.
“[Conger] did a good job of wearing Chaz down,’’ Kellogg said. “And remember, [Williams] played 40 minutes [Tuesday] against Duquesne and 40 [against Temple] to go with 38 today. Not having a bye factored in, too.’’
Williams was 3 of 11 from the field with five assists and four turnovers, and was not as effective as he was against Temple. Terrell Vinson added 20 points for the Minutemen, most of them coming late.
Andrew Nicholson added 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks for St. Bonaventure, showing why he was chosen A-10 Player of the Year, despite playing just 25 minutes because of foul trouble.
UMass was looking for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. St. Bonaventure has not been to the NCAAs since 2000.
“We wanted to rebuild the program and we’ve done it the right way,’’ said Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt. “We want players who go to class and who keep their nose clean socially, and I think we’ve done that. One more win would be so huge for us.’’
The first half was played at a frenetic pace, with defense taking a vacation. Freshman Maxie Esho kept UMass in the game with 14 first-half points and finished with 16. Morgan had 11 in the first half and finished with 13. The Bonnies shot 28 for 55 (51 percent) for the game as the Minutemen had trouble defending around the basket. UMass shot 26 for 62 (42 percent) and just 13 of 34 in the second half.
UMass forced 22 turnovers against Temple, but could muster only 10 against St. Bonaventure.