PHILADELPHIA — Brotherly Love has been the last thing the UMass Minutemen have felt whenever they’ve ventured to this part of town.
La Salle’s Tom Gola Arena, in fact, named for one the game’s greats who played in the ’50s, has been their personal chamber of horrors the last four years, never more so than last season when they buried themselves into a 26-point halftime hole before eventually falling by 7.
Despite that, UMass coach Derek Kellogg — who actually went 1-3 in his trips to Philly last year, losing Atlantic 10 games not only to La Salle but Temple and Saint Joseph’s before beating Drexel in the N.I.T — had a good feeling going into this one.
“Once we were able to nestle in the first 6-8 minutes, I knew we were going to be in for a battle the rest of the night,’’ said Kellogg, after Chaz Williams, held in check all night, spun down the lane for a layup with 8.1 seconds left to give the Minutemen a 61-60 win. “I could see in shootaround and on the bus ride over the guys had a different edge about them coming into this game.
“I didn’t know if we would win it, but I had confidence we were gonna be there at the end. I said to them, ‘Let’s give ourselves a chance with 2-3 minutes at the end to win the game.’ That’s really what happened. Two pretty good teams going at it, going down to the last possession at both ends of the floor.
“That’s what A-10 basketball is all about.’’
Had UMass lost this one, the Minutemen undoubtedly would be kicking themselves for letting a 12-point first-half lead, which they built back as high as 9 midway through the second half, slip away. While leading scorer Williams was kept under wraps until the end, Raphiael Putney (17) and Maxie Esho (11) picked up the load, enabling UMass to maintain control most of the night.
The problem was the 14-6 Explorers, coming off a momentous week in which they knocked off No. 9 Butler here, then won at No. 19 VCU, wouldn’t go away. Trailing, 45-36, La Salle took advantage of some UMass fundamental breakdowns at both ends of the floor to go on a 15-5 run and take a 51-50 lead on Steve Zack’s tap-in with 8:03 left.
From there it went down to the wire, the lead changing hands three times heading into the final minute with the Explorers clinging to a 58-57 edge.
After UMass’s Terrell Vinson and Tyreek Duren traded hoops on tough drives to the hoop — making it 60-59 La Salle with 37.9 seconds left, Kellogg decided not to call timeout and just let Williams do his thing.
“I just wanted to make a play,’’ said Williams, held to a season-low 6 points while handing out six assists. “I wasn’t making shots all day, but this time I was able to get to the rim.
“It’s good to win here. The last four years here have been tough.’’
Kellogg said it’s a sign of his kids’ maturation to pull one out like this, which wasn’t secure until Duren lost the handle rushing up the floor in the final eight seconds, then Jerrell Wright’s desperation shot was well short.
“To go on the road and win here after the way we’ve played in years past we needed a lot of big plays,’’ said Kellogg, whose 14-5 club (4-2 A 10) heads to Charlotte Saturday, before hosting Rhode Island and Saint Joseph’s next week. “When guys become seniors they get a sense of urgency.
“It’s nice to come here and win against what I consider one of the teams that has separated itself as one of the upper-echelon teams in this league, after beating Butler and VCU.’’
But for the first time in recent memory in the city that finally lived up to its “Brotherly Love’’ motto, not UMass.