AMHERST — There must be something in the air.
How else to explain that the University of Massachusetts could lose five of six games, falling flat in distant locales such as Provo, Utah, and Baton Rouge, La., as well as nearby Boston, Providence, and Uncasville, Conn., with the only victory during that sad-sack stretch coming in the agreeable atmosphere of the Mullins Center?
The Minutemen were back on their home hardcourt Tuesday, and as they’re accustomed to doing there, they walked out of the building and breathed in the brisk fresh air as winners. UMass (7-6) closed out its nonconference schedule with an 87-82 victory over Iona before 4,011 fans that were relatively subdued, with the student section nearly deserted.
What was in the air?
For much of the game, what was in the air was a floating basketball, having just left Trey Davis’s soft hands on a nice arc toward the basket. Davis, who has struggled throughout the season offensively after being a long-range threat last season, provided a spark both early and late in the game, shooting 10 of 11 from the field — including 5 of 6 from 3-point range — to lead all scorers with 25 points.
“It was kind of comical that on defense we would be helping off their best shooter, who was as hot as could be,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said about Davis. “But our mental capacity was lacking during much of this game.”
Indeed, back-to-back wide-open Davis 3-pointers gave UMass a double-digit lead eight minutes into the second half, but Iona (8-5) went on a 10-0 run to tie the score with eight minutes left. The Gaels extended their run to 20-4, largely on the inside strength of David Laury (24 points) as well as a full-court press that discombobulated the Minutemen, and Iona was up 5 with 5:22 remaining.
But the Gaels hit only one field goal the rest of the way, and after end-to-end action became a comedy of errors with little to no movement on the scoreboard, UMass finally took back the lead on a Derrick Gordon floater with 1:15 left. It hung in the air for an eternity before dropping through the net to make it 83-81.
The next something in the air was Cady Lalanne, who soared to corral a miss from beyond the arc by Iona’s Isaiah Williams. The UMass center was fouled on the rebound, but missed on a one-and-one, giving the Gaels another chance.
Williams was fouled this time but made just one of two free throws with 36 seconds left, leaving the Minutemen in the lead.
The advantage increased to 3 points after Gordon swished a pair from the line with 18 ticks on the clock.
And then . . . something was in the air. It was not an Iona 3-point try, as everyone in the building was expecting.
Instead, it was UMass freshman Donte Clark, jumping in front of Ibn Muhammad at midcourt, stealing the ball just as Iona was setting up to try to tie the score.
As Muhammad stood there empty-handed, Clark was racing along toward the basket. Then he was soaring toward a clinching dunk.
“I kind of had a feeling that he was trying to get it out of his hands,” Clark said of Muhammad. “So I went with my instinct.”
Then he tried to free his mind of an earlier failing — a missed dunk. “I just wanted to get it down,” he said. And he did just that, dunking with all of the self-assuredness he could muster.