AMHERST – The Minutemen celebrated senior day Sunday, but in a cruel reversal of fortune for UMass, Jordair Jett made sure it was an early-bird special.
Jett’s driving layup with 3.4 seconds remaining gave Saint Louis its only lead of the second half. Sadly for the Minutemen, Jett’s were the final points of the game, good for a 64-62 victory over UMass before a loud, sold-out crowd at the Mullins Center.
The win delivered the 17th-ranked Billikens the outright Atlantic-10 regular-season title for the second straight year, stopped their three-game losing streak, and denied the Minutemen a bye in this week’s conference tournament.
The fact that the game was close in the final minute should have surprised nobody. On so many occasions this season, UMass (23-7, 10-6) has found itself in a tight game, especially in the A-10, with eight of its 10 wins featuring a comeback after trailing in the final five minutes. Time and again, the Minutemen would make the necessary plays, win by a few points, and continue marching.
This time, the tables were turned.
“They did what we’ve done in games past of attacking the rim and making those plays,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “I was actually a little angry, to a certain extent, because it’s one of those games I felt like they kind of took from us. We had control of it, we had the plays we normally make, and we didn’t do that.”
Three UMass seniors — Chaz Williams, Sampson Carter, and Raphiael Putney — were honored before the game, but it was Jett, one of five senior starters for Saint Louis, who was ultimately the difference. With the game tied at 62, he received a pass near halfcourt with 13 seconds left and, guarded closely by Derrick Gordon, made a move for the basket. Jett found the lane open — too open, it turned out — and switched the ball from his right hand to his left as he neared the rim, rolling the ball in and putting the Billikens ahead for the first time since they were up, 33-31, late in the first half.
Viewed as the favorite to be named A-10 player of the year this week in Brooklyn, Jett showed why, scoring the last 6 points of the game for Saint Louis (26-5, 13-3). He finished with a team-high 17 points.
“We ran a play, and Coach [Jim Crews] told me to just play, whether it’s pass or shoot,” Jett said. “We needed a win, desperately.”
Despite having two timeouts left, UMass chose not to call one after Jett’s basket, quickly inbounding the ball to Williams, whose 35-footer at the buzzer hit the front iron and glanced away.
A win would have made UMass the No. 3 seed in the A-10 tournament at the Barclays Center. Instead, the Minutemen are seeded sixth, and will play Thursday at 9 p.m., looking for their third win this season over Rhode Island. The first two (73-68 and 70-67) weren’t easy.
“I just told the guys we’ve got to stay together, stay the course. Everybody in the locker room is sad, obviously, but everybody is looking forward to the A-10 tournament,” said Williams, who scored 20 points and handed out nine assists. His first, 45 seconds into the game, made Williams the all-time assist leader in UMass history.
The three UMass seniors combined for 33 points (Carter had 8, Putney 5), but it was Gordon, a sophomore, who provided the biggest second-half lift. Gordon’s 5 points in a 44-second span — he knocked in a floater, then converted a 3-point play with 5:49 left — gave the Minutemen a 7-point lead at 56-49, their largest of the game.
Saint Louis responded with a 7-0 run to tie the game, but Gordon put the Minutemen back up on a 14-foot floater with 2:52 left. A layup by Carter 40 seconds later extended the UMass lead to 60-56 before Jett tied the game twice: First on a pair of free throws, and then, after a driving layup by Williams, on his own driving layup with 1:03 remaining.
Holding the ball in the final minute with the game tied — they’ve been in this situation before — the Minutemen couldn’t convert. Cady Lalanne had his shot in the lane partially blocked by Rob Loe, and an ensuing scrum produced a jump ball. The arrow pointed the Billikens’ way, and with 36.4 seconds left they could almost wait for the final shot.
Saint Louis didn’t take the final one — the last attempt was Williams’s heave at the horn — but made the shot it did take.
“It hurts a little bit, because I wanted to be a top-four seed and have an extra day to get ready in the A-10 tournament, and I would have liked to send the seniors off at home with a big win,” Kellogg said. “They won the game. We’ve got to mentally stay focused for 40 minutes.
“You know what? It’s who we are. We made it a little tougher on ourselves, but we’re a tough group, we’re resilient, so we’ll have to go down there and try to take care of some business.”
Williams hit his first five shots, including a 28-foot 3-pointer that gave the Minutemen a 28-26 lead late in the first half. Neither team led by more than 7 points in the opening 20 minutes, that coming on an opening 9-2 run by the Billikens. UMass led at the break, 35-33.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.