AMERST —“It starts with defense.”
That was Jesse Morgan speaking last Wednesday night after he’d nailed seven 3-pointers on a 35-point night that boosted the University of Massachusetts to a runaway victory. It sounded like the kind of student-of-the-game platitude a player might recite after listening to one too many of his coach’s press conferences. But on Saturday afternoon Morgan showed how true those words were.
And his partner in the Minuteman backcourt demonstrated the veracity of another clipboard-tested adage: To win, you’ve got to make your free throws.
Chaz Williams (season-high 26 points, 11 assists) hit eight straight from the line in the final minute — and was 15 of 16 for the game — to enable UMass to hold off East Carolina, 88-81, before 4,123 at the Mullins Center for the home team’s fourth straight victory.
It was Morgan whose grunt work all afternoon put the Minutemen (7-3) in position to play with a lead. In a game that was billed as a duel of point guards, Williams vs. Miguel Paul, Morgan clamped down on the Pirates’ floor leader all over the court. At the 12-minute mark of the second half, here was Paul’s production: 0 points, 1 assist, 5 turnovers.
At key moments in both halves, Morgan either stole the ball away or drew a charge. A theft by the junior shooting guard led to a Terrell Vinson plus-1 dunk that put UMass ahead by 16 with six minutes to go before intermission. Then, after East Carolina (7-3) had pulled within 3 midway through the second half, Morgan (15 points, six rebounds) hit a 3-pointer and drew a Paul charge to keep a 14-0 UMass run chugging along.
“Jesse did a nice job defensively, really for the second straight game,” said coach Derek Kellogg. “I slid him over to the point guard a bit: one, to give Chaz a little bit of a break defensively, and secondly, because I think Jesse’s a really good defender.”
Paul did finally get going, though, with a burst of his own. After the Minuteman run had produced a 17-point advantage, the East Carolina point guard finally got onto the scoreboard with a smooth runner with 11:10 left. He then drew a Morgan foul and hit two free throws, and after feeding Maurice Kemp (21 points) for a basket, Paul hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 12.
But that was it for him. With a little under seven minutes left, and with UMass having built its lead back to 17, Paul left the game and did not return. East Carolina was not finished, though.
Following a Williams layup that made it 72-53, the Pirates went on a 17-4 run, a 3-pointer by Freddie Riley (season-high 14 points) and a Morgan free throw the only positive moments for UMass. East Carolina went to full-court pressure during this stretch, and the Minutemen either turned the ball over or settled for bad shots. A Paris Roberts-Campbell trey off a Kemp steal made it a 4-point game with 3:19 left.
The teams then traded baskets and missed opportunities until Robert Sampson nailed a 3-pointer with 1:03 left to cut the Minutemen’s lead to 3.
Timeout, UMass. “I was very frustrated,” said Kellogg. “I mean, you’re up 17, you’ve got to just close the game out.”
The Minutemen did just that in the final minute, largely thanks to Williams. Time after time, the East Carolina press could not deny the inbounds pass to the speedy 5-foot-9-inch point guard, so all the Pirates could do was foul him. And every time Williams was sent to the line, he put 2 more points on the scoreboard.
Williams was a 79 percent free throw shooter last season but came into Saturday’s game at just 66 percent. Last Saturday, he missed a late pair that would have sewn up a UMass victory (the Minutemen won, anyway, in overtime). So he was relieved to once again produce positive results at the line.
But rather than sing his own praises, the point guard chose to dish out his accolades to the team that put the ball in his hands at the game’s telling moment. “Between us, it’s love and togetherness,” said Williams. “We’re just there for each other, have each other’s back.”