SPRINGFIELD - The University of Massachusetts basketball team has been a terror from behind the 3-point line this season. Last night, the Minutemen added another line to their repertoire: the free throw stripe.
UMass fought back from a double-digit second-half deficit on the strength of long-range shooting, built a lead of its own on some explosive drives and tough work in the lane, then made its free throws down the stretch to hold on for an 82-78 victory over Siena before 4,236 at the MassMutual Center.
The game was part of the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase quadrupleheader.
“We probably didn’t play our best,” said Derek Kellogg, coach of the 8-3 Minutemen. “Or maybe they forced us to not play our best.’’
Indeed, Siena (3-6) didn’t look like a team that came in having lost five of its last six games. The Saints looked poised against full-court pressure, beating the press repeatedly for layups and open looks. (They committed 14 turnovers, but UMass typically creates around 20 a game.) And the Albany team’s zone defense gave the Minutemen fits.
Siena had a 6-point lead at halftime - the first time in seven games that it has led at the break - and built on it early in the second half. An 8-0 run punctuated by 3-pointers by Kyle Downey (game-high 23 points) and Owen Wignot gave the Saints an 11-point lead with just under 17 minutes left in the game.
But UMass was not about to be outdone from beyond the arc. Over the next four minutes, the Minutemen hit five 3-pointers - three of them by Freddie Riley (20 points) - to surge into the lead. When Riley hit his third of the run to put UMass ahead, 55-54, he looked to the sky and pumped his fist.
“I was just happy to be making shots, finally,’’ he said, an apparent reference to his cold shooting in this week’s practices.
The UMass lead then went to 3 when, off a post-timeout inbounds play, Raphiael Putney (13 points) emphatically slammed one home to punctuate a 19-5 run. He ended up being a difference-maker, penetrating the Siena defense and hitting key shots in the lane.
For much of the game, UMass point guard Chaz Williams got swallowed up by the zone, ending up with no one to pass to and forced to put up an off-balance shot against the long arms of OD Anosike (22 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks). But once the Minutemen were in the lead, Williams (22 points) began finding room in the middle of the defense, three times penetrating for layups or drawing a foul. With just under a minute left, he hit his second straight drive and the Minutemen were up by 4 (76-72).
“We might have gotten tired in the end,’’ said Siena coach Mitch Buonaguro, a onetime Boston College point guard, reflecting on how his team lost the ability to contain Williams. “We were playing seven guys.’’
In the end, it came down to not the long-distance arc, but that other line. UMass protected its lead by making free throws. Williams and Javorn Farrell hit both ends of one-and-ones at the line to keep Siena at arm’s length.
And every bit counted. Downey hit a 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds left to make it a 2-point game, then nearly created a turnover on the inbounds.
Instead, Williams went to the line once more to seal the victory.