KINGSTON, R.I. — With T.J. Buchanan sprinting downcourt on what looked to be an uncontested layup that would bring Rhode Island within 1 point in the game’s final minute, University of Massachusetts senior Raphiael Putney gave chase.
At 6 feet 9 inches, the lanky forward can close a gap quickly with his large strides and sneaky speed. And as Buchanan soon found out, Putney also can turn a game-changing bunny into a game-defining block.
Stretching as far as his frame would allow, Putney got his left hand on the ball almost as soon as it left Buchanan’s fingers. The timing was perfect, and while it didn’t seal UMass’s 73-68 win Sunday over Rhode Island at the Ryan Center, it blocked, quite literally, the upstart Rams’ best last-gasp bid for a home upset.
The victory ended a three-game road losing streak for UMass (19-4, 6-3 Atlantic 10) in a game that featured 12 lead changes and clutch guard play from both sides. But it was Putney’s play that had everyone talking, especially the big man from Woodbridge, Va.
“It was a close game. I just couldn’t let them have that free layup, so I sprinted as hard as I could,” Putney said. “I’m known for blocking shots, so when I got it, it was a great block by me. It saved us.”
Seated next to Putney in the interview room after the game, UMass coach Derek Kellogg couldn’t resist.
“That’s a modest way of putting it,” Kellogg said.
The block, Putney’s fourth of the game, came with 38 seconds left and UMass clinging to a 68-65 lead. The ball eventually ended up in the hands of senior guard Chaz Williams, who made a pair of free throws after getting fouled with 31.8 seconds left to push the lead to 5.
Williams scored 11 of his team-high 21 points in a 15-3 run that flipped a 7-point Rhode Island lead into that 5-point UMass cushion. Williams did it on both ends; his scoring and passing almost singlehandedly led the Minutemen back, but it was his defense on Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews that deserves special mention. Matthews finished with a game-high 24, but the Rams were outscored, 18-6, over the game’s final 8:35.
Rhode Island (11-13, 2-7) had just two field goals in the last 10 minutes: a rebound layup by Gilvydas Biruta, and a 3-pointer by Matthews with 15 seconds left.
Rhode Island’s guard tandem of Matthews, a freshman, and senior Xavier Munford (19 points) scored the Rams’ first 15 points of the second half, and had 26 of the team’s 33 points after the break. While it might look like Williams made it a personal challenge to answer Matthews and Munford with offense, he said his primary focus was on defense.
“I actually want to guard that, I want to put a stop to that,” Williams said, when asked about matching the offense being put up by the opposing guards. “When I see something like that happening, I’ll ask Coach if I can switch on them. I started off on Buchanan, but I went to E.C. Matthews late. I wanted to guard him, and Coach let me.”
Williams’s defense might have given UMass a chance, but it was his offense that ultimately pushed them over the line. After three free throws by Munford gave the Rams a 62-55 lead with 8:35 to play, Williams began to take over. He made a free throw, converted a steal by Derrick Gordon into a layup, found Maxie Esho on the baseline with a no-look pass that led to a dunk, then tied the game at 62 with two free throws at 4:31.
After Biruta’s second-chance layup put the Rams up, 64-62, Williams tied it again on another layup, then sent the Minutemen in front for good with a tough jumper in the lane with 3:31 left.
“We failed to close it out, and a lot of that had to do with that Chaz Williams guy,” Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said. “There’s a reason why he’s a player of the year candidate and one of the best point guards in the country.”
Gordon and Putney each added 11 points, and the Minutemen outrebounded the younger Rams, 36-27. It was their first road win since Jan. 18, and kept them tied for fourth in the conference.
“I’ll tell you what: Any win right now I feel great about,” Kellogg said.Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.