AMHERST — This one was for all the sacrifices Sampson Carter had made. It was for the physical toll the torn tendon in his right hip had taken on him last year, a preseason setback that led to surgery and limited him to seven games as a junior forward on the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team.
It was for the countless hours Carter spent in physical therapy, in the training room, in the weight room, and in the pool, fighting to get back on the court for one redemptive moment such as the one he faced Tuesday when he hit a 3-pointer with one second remaining to give UMass a thrilling 67-64 victory over Harvard before a Mullins Center crowd of 3,874.
“I had to hit it,’’ said Carter, whose trifecta was his only basket of the game, as his playing time was limited to eight minutes because of four fouls. “I had to. There were so many things we went through in practice, twice a day, then pool workouts, and then track, and hitting [agility] ladders and going through your exercises, man.
“I had to hit that.”
With the game tied at 64 and hurtling toward overtime, UMass forced the last of Harvard’s 19 turnovers to take control for one last possession with 28 seconds to go. Junior guard Chaz Williams, the catalyst of a Minuteman squad that is picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, made a dribble-drive penetration toward the basket that seemed to draw all five defenders.
Spying Carter’s man creep toward him on the baseline, Williams kicked it out to Carter in the left corner.
“I just knew he was going to hit it, so I had all faith and confidence in passing him the ball,’’ Williams said.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker liked the play, too, for different reasons.
“I was very excited, to be honest with you, because he threw it out and he’s a great finisher at the rim and he’s also crafty enough to get fouled,’’ said Amaker. “So I thought it played into our hands, but obviously the kid made a big shot.
“He was in the right spot. Williams, he can find people, and he certainly found the open man.’’
The game, which tipped off at 10 a.m. as one of 11 in ESPN’s “Tip-Off Marathon,” certainly was an early wakeup call for the Minutemen, who departed afterward for Puerto Rico to play Providence in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
“I think we were fortunate,’’ said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “When you’re trying to get off to a good start and have a good season, you need to be fortunate more often than not.’’
Carter’s unlikely trey — only the 17th of his career — enabled the Minutemen to survive a season-opening scare from their feisty Ivy League opponents, who after trailing by 10 thrice in the final 5:21 of the first half, fought back to pull within 38-37 on Christian Webster’s buzzer-beating trey just before intermission.
“We kind of knew they were going to give us their best punch,’’ said Williams, who finished with 12 points, 10 assists, 3 turnovers, and 3 steals.
Jesse Morgan led the Minutemen with 19 points off the bench, including a huge 3-pointer that tied it at 64 with 37.6 seconds left, while Raphiael Putney had 13 points and 3 rebounds. Cady Lalanne had 9 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots.
“Coach always preaches to us that we’re not the underdogs anymore,’’ Williams said. “Some games we might be, but most of the games we’re not, so teams are going to give us their best shot.’’
The Crimson are looking to resolve some lingering questions about a leadership void left when Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, their two best players from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad, withdrew from school after their reported involvement in an academic cheating scandal.
While Wesley Saunders led the Crimson with 18 points, including a pair of foul shots with 1:21 left that gave Harvard its biggest lead of the game, 64-59, freshman point guard Siyani Chambers emerged as the floor leader, chipping in 14 points while dishing out 7 assists and committing only one turnover in the face of UMass’s withering defensive pressure, which converted 19 Harvard turnovers into 29 points.
“His first road game as a college player, to play the way he played with a spirit and an energy and a toughness, I think he’s shown he’s going to be an outstanding player,’’ Amaker said. “Too bad we couldn’t cap it off with a victory to make it sweeter for him.’’
Carter trumped everyone else with his 3-pointer.
“That’s a tough shot for a guy who’s been through some adversity,’’ said Kellogg. “As of a week and a half ago, I wasn’t sure he was physically able to play, to a certain extent, the way he was kind of hobbling around.
“For him to kind of fight through — and, really, he’s given up his body for his teammates — it’s fitting when a guy like that makes the game-winning shot.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.