PHILADELPHIA — It took four months and 21 games, but the UMass Minutemen are finally staring at a losing streak.
Ending a six-game stretch that featured five on the road, the 21st-ranked Minutemen continued to come up short away from Amherst, dropping their third straight conference road game. On Saturday night, they came up just short. Rallying to tie the game in the last minute after trailing by 17 points in the first half, the Minutemen lost at Saint Joseph’s, 73-68, in a game that came down to the final few seconds and last couple of possessions.
It’s the second straight loss for UMass (17-4, 4-3 Atlantic 10) and third in four games. There was plenty that coach Derek Kellogg liked. Trouble was, it all came in the second half, and followed a first half that featured hardly anything positive.
“I thought we played great basketball for 20 minutes of a 40-minute game, and probably the worst half of basketball we could play in the first half, from missed layups to just not a lot of energy,” Kellogg said. “I though we fought back, and we were a missed layup away from probably winning that game. We had two 1-footers to go up 2, and then we put them on the free throw line shortly thereafter.”
For the eighth straight time in the series, the home team walked away with a victory. But this one certainly wasn’t easy for the Hawks (15-6, 5-2).
UMass twice tied the game late. The first came at 67 on a layup by Derrick Gordon, who led the Minutemen with 21 points. After a free throw by Langston Galloway put the Hawks up 1, a free throw by Chaz Williams tied the game again with 39.2 seconds left. But Williams missed the second freebie, and the ensuing scrum — UMass had a pair of tip-in chances — resulted in a foul on the Minutemen with 30.1 seconds left.
Chris Wilson made both free throws to put the Hawks up by 2, and Saint Joseph’s forced a bad-pass turnover against Gordon on the next possession to deny the Minutemen a chance to tie or take the lead. Three more free throws by the Hawks in the final 12.6 seconds iced it.
After trailing by 16 points at halftime, UMass chipped away in the early part of the second half. A reverse layup by Gordon — his third basket in a four-minute stretch — cut the Saint Joseph’s lead to 50-43 with 13:09 left, the closest the Minutemen had been since it was 23-17.
But every time UMass made a dent in the lead, the Hawks built it back up. A quick 4-point burst — dunk by Ronald Roberts, layup by Galloway — pushed it back to an 11-point cushion.
The Minutemen wouldn’t go completely away, with a layup by Williams bringing them within 66-59 with 4:20 left. After a Saint Joseph’s free throw, UMass had one final run, going on an 8-0 spurt to tie the game at 67 on the layup by Gordon.
Saint Joseph’s built the big halftime lead despite getting nothing from Galloway, the team’s leading scorer who was honored before the game for becoming the school’s career 3-point leader last week. Galloway, who came in averaging 17.2 points per game, was in foul trouble most of the night and finished with 7 points.
He wasn’t the only player fighting foul trouble. There were 45 fouls called, which meant 60 free throw attempts. Cady Lalanne (12 points) fouled out for UMass, as did DeAndre Bembry (13 points) for Saint Joseph’s.
A first-half foul that wasn’t called cost UMass a valuable substitute. With 4:51 left in the opening half, forward Maxie Esho was hit on the forehead while jumping for a defensive rebound. Esho jumped for the ball, with three Saint Joseph’s players coming over the top. No foul was called, and when Esho finally got to his feet, a large bump was visible on his forehead, above his right eye. Esho was taken to the locker room, then to a medical room inside Hagan Arena. He never returned to the bench.
It was part of a deflating first half for UMass. Everything that could go wrong for the Minutemen went wrong. There were missed layups. Williams, typically sure-handed, lost the ball near halfcourt after slipping, the turnover leading to a Saint Joseph’s layup. One of the few times UMass executed in its halfcourt offense, a field goal was nullified because of offensive basket interference.
The Minutemen ended the first half by failing to get a shot off before the buzzer. The way the half played out, it seemed a fitting end.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.