ELON, N.C. — Getting here turned out to be a challenge for the University of Massachusetts basketball team.
Beating Elon wasn’t much easier, but the 16th-ranked Minutemen imposed their will and made use of a size advantage to wear down the Phoenix, 84-74, in Saturday night’s nonconference game at cozy Alumni Gym.
“It took some discipline on our part,” center Cady Lalanne said of UMass maintaining its poise in a wild atmosphere. “I thought we had a size advantage and we wanted to expose their inside defense.”
Lalanne did his part by scoring 16 of his 23 points in the first half. Guard Chaz Williams scored all 20 of his points in the second half as UMass (16-1) stretched its winning streak to six games.
Coach Derek Kellogg said he liked how the Minutemen persevered through the game — not to mention the unexpected travel glitches the previous day.
So when Williams salted away the victory by scoring 14 points in the last seven minutes, there were positive vibes.
“This was a good, tough 40 minutes for us,” Kellogg said. “That’s about as full of a 40 minutes we had in a while. I was nervous coming in. I knew this team could beat us if we didn’t play well.”
UMass’s trip was interrupted by flight changes Friday, meaning part of the team went through Washington and the other made it more quickly to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. That became such an ordeal that Kellogg nixed Friday’s scheduled practice upon arrival, instead opting for a walkthrough at a hotel in nearby Burlington.
The Minutemen also didn’t have a full practice Thursday after returning from Wednesday night’s 1-point escape at George Mason.
“I was just hoping my guys were mature enough to handle all this,” Kellogg said.
Williams said the break in structure created a need for an adjustment.
“Yeah, it took me out of my routine,” Williams said. “It’s not all going to be perfect. You just have to find a way to fix it.”
The additional time away from the court might have worked in UMass’s favor.
“Inadvertently, I thought the rest was good for us,” Kellogg said.
The Minutemen encountered a festive environment, with a crowd of 1,857, as they were the first nationally ranked team to visit Alumni Gym since Elon (10-9) rose to Division 1.
“That kind of fired us up a little bit,” Lalanne said. “Coach told us about the crowd and we were ready for it.”
UMass’s lead wavered between 7 and 13 points in the second half. Down the stretch, Elon had four possessions with chances to cut deeper into the deficit, but each time came up empty.
Lalanne’s block of a shot by Elon forward Lucas Troutman, who had a team-best 19 points, was one of the key sequences.
Lalanne, who had 10 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season, had help on the inside from reserve Maxie Esho. Esho made 7 of 10 shots from the field and finished with a season-high 17 points and seven rebounds.
“They’re extremely long,” Troutman said. “They’re long and they’re longer than you think.”
The Minutemen enjoyed a 38-18 bulge in points in the lane.
Yet it was Derrick Gordon’s offensive rebound and flip out to Williams for a 3-pointer that Kellogg called one of the game’s key plays. That extended the Minutemen’s lead to 67-56 with less than seven minutes to go.
To celebrate the basket, Williams blew on both hands and mimicked putting them in imaginary holsters as he turned toward Elon’s student section.
Lalanne showed range, too. He bagged a first-half 3-pointer on only his fourth long-range attempt of the season.
“I just popped out and it was there,” Lalanne said.
Williams didn’t attempt a shot until the 1:27 mark of the first half, when his 3-pointer drew only the backboard. On UMass’s next possession, his drive to the basket failed to touch the rim.
But he didn’t seem rattled by going scoreless in the half.
“I always knew he would catch fire,” Lalanne said. “It was about time he got rolling.”
The Minutemen, who led, 29-15, hit a slippery stretch late in the first half, scoring just 2 points over six possessions as Elon closed to 31-23. Kellogg called time out at the 5:17 mark, and Tyler Bergantino’s basket helped restore order.
Lalanne scored UMass’s last 5 points of the half.
Elon, the preseason favorite in the Southern Conference, was limited to 34.4 percent (22 of 64) shooting from the field.