AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts’ demanding nonconference schedule already had paid dividends. The Minutemen had started the season with success that surprised and impressed, winning 12 of their first 13 games and bursting into the national rankings.
Wednesday night, the toughness built up during that rugged start to the season paid out a bonus in the Atlantic 10 conference opener.
Trailing by 9 points and looking lifeless with under 6½ minutes left, No. 19 UMass fought back with a closing 18-5 run that brought down the house and Saint Joseph’s, 66-62, in front of a frustrated-at-times, deafening-at-the-finish 4,621 at the Mullins Center.
“The will to win at the end was nice,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg, whose team is 6-0 on its home court this season and 24-5 over the last three regular seasons. “When you’re going to do something special, you’ve got to win some games where things don’t go perfect.”
The suggestion that things weren’t going perfectly might be the understatement of the season. The Minutemen (13-1, 1-0 A-10) were badly outrebounded after losing center Cady Lalanne for much of the first half because of foul trouble, and they shot 1 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc before intermission. And while the second half began with promise, as UMass made an 11-2 run out of the gate to grab a 6-point lead, the momentum quickly shifted thanks to a 7-0 spurt by Saint Joseph’s (9-5, 0-1) that put the Hawks back in the lead with 12 minutes to play.
The lead ping-ponged for a couple of minutes until the visitors seized control, thanks in large part to Halil Kanacevic. The senior scored 7 of his team-leading 19 points during a stretch that ended with Saint Joseph’s ahead by 9 and 6:23 to go.
But then it was time for Chaz Williams (22 points) — once a teammate of Kanacevic’s before they both transferred from Hofstra — to put on perhaps the Chaz Williams-est performance of the season. His aggression on both offense and defense hit high gear as Kellogg went with a three-guard lineup in order to push the ball up the court and pressure from end to end.
Williams drew a foul on a drive and hit a pair of free throws, and after a Trey Davis 3-pointer off a steal by backcourt mate Derrick Gordon, Williams nailed a trey of his own. He had a chance to tie the game after he was fouled on another 3-point attempt with 3:43 left, but he hit only one of the three free throws.
At the two-minute mark Williams struck again, scoring on a drive to pull UMass within a point. Then Gordon’s defensive pressure forced a turnover, and the home crowd exploded with expectation. A bit prematurely, as it turned out. UMass was unable to capitalize on that possession, but after Saint Joseph’s secured the rebound and started up the court, Maxie Esho — a 6-foot-8-inch forward with a guard’s energy — stole the ball and made a breakaway slam that put the Minutemen ahead, 63-62, with a minute left.
“That’s Maxie being Maxie,” said Williams.
Before the game was won, though, UMass needed Chaz to be Chaz.
After Davis hit two free throws to make it a 3-point game, Saint Joseph’s called a timeout and set up a play for Langston Galloway, who had scored 18 points and at times looked unstoppable. But a man can’t score when he doesn’t have the ball — so Williams blanketed Galloway off the ball. Even after the Hawks called another timeout to plot a way to get the ball to Galloway, Williams remained in denial mode.
“It was a challenge,” Williams said of the Galloway matchup. “I love challenges.”
The discombobulated Hawks ended up resting their hopes on a 3-point heave with five seconds left by Papa Ndao, who had zero points and had taken only one shot to that point.
His shot, contested by Lalanne, clanged off the backboard and rim. Davis grabbed the long rebound, was fouled, hit one of two free throws, and the game was over.
With many, many more to play in the A-10.
“We’re now at the point where nobody is going to give you a game,” said Kellogg. “You have to go win it.”