AMHERST — Too big of a deficit had been overcome, and too many second chances had been given. More importantly, too much was on the line. So Chaz Williams took matters into his own hands.
After a 5-point lead in the final minute had been cut to 1, and with the UMass Minutemen looking a little shaky against Virginia Commonwealth’s pressure, Williams made two of the biggest plays of Friday night’s game before a sold-out crowd at the Mullins Center and anyone watching on ESPN2.
With UMass inbounding, the senior point guard from Brooklyn made sure he received the pass, got fouled, and made a pair of free throws with 16.8 seconds left to put UMass up by 3.
Then Williams picked the pocket of VCU’s Briante Weber, who was driving toward the basket as the game clock dipped under 10 seconds. Williams’s steal sent him back to the foul line, where he made another pair of freebies, putting the finishing touches on an 80-75 victory that was every bit as entertaining as it sounds.
Neither team led by more than 6 points in the second half, when there were five lead changes and a pair of ties. But the Minutemen took the lead for good with 4:04 left on a jumper by Trey Davis, and went 6 for 6 from the line in the final minute to keep VCU at bay.
UMass gave up 16 offensive rebounds, allowed 14 fast-break points, and for the first time since March 1, 2006, failed to make a 3-point shot (0 for 8).
In the end, none of that mattered.
“I just wanted to go out and make a good play for my team,” Williams said of his last-second steal. “I didn’t want to give up on the play.”
Williams scored a game-high 20 points, 14 coming in the second half, and made all eight of his free throws, helping the Minutemen earn a 10-point edge at the line. Derrick Gordon had 16 points, Davis added 13, and Cady Lalanne 10.
The win brought UMass (21-5, 8-4) into a third-place tie in the Atlantic 10 with VCU (20-7, 8-4) and George Washington, which the Minutemen beat last weekend. Two impressive victories in a row, against teams among the top 25 of the RPI. After the only home loss of the season to George Mason on Feb. 12, UMass has responded with two of its best games.
“I do let the guys know that we have something special going on here, and take advantage of it,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “You don’t want to look back on your career and say, ‘What if I would have played a little harder that particular day or practiced a little harder?’ Let’s try to leave everything on the floor and see where this magical ride can lead us.”
UMass (77.0) and VCU (75.9) run 1-2 in the A-10 in points per game, and the preferred frenetic pace usually means a successful result. The Rams were able to generate points off their fast break in the first half, when they held a 14-0 advantage and brought a 39-34 lead into the break after leading by as many as 9.
But VCU’s fast break dried up in the second half, and the Rams were hurt by poor free-throw shooting (10 for 22). The Minutemen took a 50-49 lead on a driving layup by Williams, then used an 8-1 run to grab the lead for good after again falling behind by 5, capped by Davis’s runner with 4:04 left that made it 70-68.
Both teams have spent time in the Associated Press poll — VCU as high as 10th, UMass climbing to 13th — and even though neither came into Friday’s game ranked, conference standings and postseason tournament seeding are beginning to matter. The crowd and national television appearance gave an already anticipated matchup an added boost.
“It felt like an NCAA Tournament-caliber game,” Kellogg said. “We’re ecstatic with the win, [but] we realize there’s a lot of nights left in the season.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.