SPRINGFIELD — Maybe the offense just needed some extra work.
Actually, there’s no “maybe” about it. The University of Massachusetts could use plenty of work on its offensive flow. But it was a coincidence that the Minutemen got in five extra minutes on the basketball court Saturday afternoon. Overtime was a necessity to separate themselves from Elon University in a 78-73 victory in the Hall of Fame Showcase before a crowd generously counted as 3,085 at the MassMutual Center.
Overtime was a new twist in a season in which UMass (5-3) had secured three of its four previous victories in the final four seconds. And the Minutemen had a chance to follow the usual script when Chaz Williams (20 points, nine assists) stepped to the free throw line with 2.2 seconds left in a tie game.
“I thought the game was over, honestly,” said coach Derek Kellogg. “I mean, he’s about as clutch a player as I’ve been around.”
Not this time. Williams missed a pair, and regulation ended tied at 66.
UMass did find a flow to jump out to a 4-point lead in the first minute of the extra session. And after Elon (6-4) tied the game with 1:47 left, the Minutemen went on a decisive run sparked by Jesse Morgan, who scored his only basket (1 for 9) on a strong, determined drive. Then Williams reasserted his clutchness cred by making a steal and then, over the span of two possessions, three of four free throws, making it a 75-70 game with 32.3 seconds left.
“I thought the kids at least had a semblance, for the most part of the game, of what we’re trying to do, on both ends of the floor,” said Kellogg. “But there’s another layer to this that we’re trying to reach, and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
The Minutemen were a lot closer to that higher level on defense than on offense. The man-to-man pressure produced 16 turnovers and played a significant factor in Elon, which came in shooting 3-pointers at a 34 percent clip, hitting just 23 percent from beyond the arc.
But that miserable number actually looked pretty good once you gazed at what UMass produced: 3 of 19 from downtown, or 16 percent.
“As you can see, our 3-point shooting has improved dramatically,” Kellogg said sarcastically as he looked ruefully at the numbers. “Three for 19. So we’re going to continue to work on that.”
There’s so much to work on. After an 11-day layoff, the Minutemen struggled to develop a flow, with Williams continually trying to attack the defense from the top of the key but rarely able to penetrate for a layup or a dish-off that might produce easy points. For much of the game, UMass settled for quick 3-pointers or clock-beating, out-of-the-flow jumpers.
And while the defense was generally stout, there were holes there, too. Such as fouling 85 percent free throw shooter Jack Isenbarger on a 3-point attempt, which essentially handed him 3 of his team-leading 22 points. Or surrendering 20 offensive rebounds.
Kellogg took it all in stride. He liked what he saw in an expanded role for Sampson Carter (13 points, 11 rebounds) and appreciated the resiliency of Williams and Morgan. And more than anything else, he was happy to once again walk out of the MassMutual Center a winner — UMass beat Siena in last season’s Hall of Fame Showcase and won three times in the building two seasons ago; Kellogg, a Springfield native, is 5-1 there as a coach and was 8-1 as a UMass player in the early 1990s.
So the coach was smiling, but he wasn’t satisfied. “I think this team is still trying to search for an identity — how we’re going to play, what we’re good at,” he said. “Right now, at times, it’s just like a good player makes a play instead of us really sharing and making good plays for each other.”