NEW YORK — With the offense struggling — against Rhode Island, yet again — the UMass Minutemen would need some semblance of defense to win Thursday night’s Atlantic 10 tournament opener at the Barclays Center.
During a halftime scolding, coach Derek Kellogg spelled out the ugly scenario and offered his players a simple challenge.
“I asked them, ‘How can a team shoot 60 percent? This is not our identity, this is not who we are. If you guys would like to try to continue to play, you’ll go out and take it to them. If you’d like to go home, then do what you did in the first half,’ ” Kellogg said. “We didn’t communicate, we didn’t talk. Ball pressure is our staple, and we didn’t pressure the ball.”
Backed into a 9-point hole when URI’s Xavier Munford rolled in a driving layup with 9:51 left in the game, UMass’s defense took over. Eventually, the offense caught up.
Following Munford’s layup that made it 55-46, the Minutemen held URI without a field goal almost the entire rest of the way, allowing only a layup to Munford with 2.4 seconds left. By that point, the Minutemen had finally grabbed the lead, which led to a 65-61 victory that sends UMass into the quarterfinals on Friday against third-seeded George Washington.
The sixth-seeded Minutemen (24-7) trailed for most of the game, and were down by as many as 11 points early in the second half. This game, like the two regular-season matchups, went down to the final minute. This game, like the first two, also ended with a tense, tight UMass win.
“We just wanted to bear down on defense. We knew our shots weren’t falling, so we just wanted to go out there and make a defensive stand,” said Chaz Williams, who scored 7 of his 11 points in the final 2:25. “We usually know that every time we play the defense we’re capable of, it always leads to easy offense.”
Nothing was easy for the Minutemen offensively on a night they shot just 31.5 percent (17 for 54) from the field and 20 percent (3 for 15) from behind the arc. It took a while, but UMass finally took its first lead of the second half with 3:07 left on a driving layup by Trey Davis, a 3-point specialist who had a pair of tough slashes to the basket with his team trailing late and the pressure rising.
Williams, a Brooklyn native, had been held to 4 points on 2-of-11 shooting with less than four minutes left. Benched for a brief stretch of the second half when Kellogg thought he was pressing, Williams had four fouls when he reentered with 5:07 left, his coach gambling that the senior all-conference pick wouldn’t pick up his fifth.
He never did, and came through when it mattered most. After a URI free throw tied the game, Williams converted a pair of freebies with 2:25 left to put the Minutemen up, 58-56.
When Gilvydas Biruta missed a pair of free throws that would have tied it again, Williams delivered a knockout blow, his only 3-pointer of the game to give UMass a 61-56 lead with 1:51 left.
The way UMass was playing defense, a 5-point lead felt like five touchdowns.
“I thought the first half had no flow. In the second half, although it wasn’t a beautiful game to watch, per se, because guys were missing shots, there was some back-and-forth, and the floor opened up more. I think we’re a better team when there’s some space to operate,” Kellogg said. “I kind of like when the game looks ugly, because that’s when it becomes a little bit of a street fight.”
UMass created good looks early but couldn’t find the target, missing 12 of its first 15 shots and falling behind, 12-6. The struggles resembled the last time the teams met, in a 70-67 UMass win at the Mullins Center Feb. 26. The Minutemen missed their first eight shots in that game, opened 3 for 23, and trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half.
The first-half deficit didn’t get that high this time, but it did hit 10, when Munford’s layup gave the Rams a 37-27 lead. It capped a 13-3 run for URI (14-18), and a monster opening half for Munford, who didn’t miss a shot from the field — 6 for 6, including three 3-pointers — and had 18 points.
UMass led just once in the first half, and for a grand total of 29 seconds. A corner 3-pointer from Sampson Carter with 7:56 left stretched a UMass run to 10-3, and gave the Minutemen a 20-19 lead. But Munford answered with a 3-pointer from the right wing, putting URI back in front.
A 3-pointer from E.C. Matthews to open the second half gave the Rams an 11-point lead, their largest. But UMass began chipping away. Reserve Maxie Esho (team-high 15 points before fouling out) kept the Minutemen close. He scored 7 straight points, including consecutive baskets on second-chance dunks. His baseline basket brought UMass within 46-40.
A 3-point play by Derrick Gordon (10 points) followed Munford’s layup with 9:51 left, and began UMass’s defense-led comeback. Free throw shooting also played a role — UMass was 28 for 36, while URI was 11 for 23 — but the Minutemen’s ability to shut down the Rams over the final 10 minutes gave them at least one more day in this tournament.
But not even Williams, playing in his backyard, was ready to celebrate after yet another close win over URI.
“There’s no celebration. We’re getting ready for tomorrow,” he said. “God willing, we celebrate on Sunday.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.