AMHERST — It looked sickly at the beginning and had some noxious moments a little later on, but it was just what the doctor ordered.
Not that the University of Massachusetts wants to hear any medical metaphors.
The Minutemen were playing Thursday night for the first time since learning that the right knee injury sustained last week by Jess Morgan is an anterior cruciate ligament tear that ends his season.
After losing their second-leading scorer, best 3-point shooter, and top perimeter defender, they might have preferred an easy ride but actually needed a game like this, if only to show they still have what it takes.
UMass overcame a feeble start, gradually built a healthy cushion before halftime, then fought its way to a 79-66 victory over Duquesne before a Mullins Center crowd of 3,421 that alternated between quiet, cranky, and ultimately celebratory.
Wait, so UMass (12-4, 2-1 Atlantic 10) went into the locker room ahead by 14 and “fought its way” to a 13-point win? Yes, that’s the Minuteman way. Having already won nine games this season by 6 points or fewer, UMass naturally couldn’t coast after intermission.
On the way to its ninth win in 10 games, the home team had to withstand a 3-pointer barrage by Duquesne (7-10, 0-3) that brought the Dukes within 3 points.
The catalysts for both the first-half surge and second-half resurgence were the replacement starter with Morgan out, Freddie Riley (12 points), as well as UMass’s maestro point guard, Chaz Williams (22 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals). Each had a trio of 3-pointers before intermission, and Williams had three steals and Riley two as the Minutemen broke open a 2-point game.
But Duquesne’s Sean Johnson (29 points) came out of the locker room hot — 15 points in the first 6 minutes, including three treys — and the Dukes climbed off the canvas and counterattacked. A 3-pointer by Jerry Jones made it 61-58 with 9:21 left. It was time for the Minutemen to either punch back or throw in the towel.
They still had some fight in them. They tightened up the defense and got some stellar work underneath from Cady Lalanne (12 points, 11 rebounds), who had his third double-double of the season and his third straight game with double digits in rebounds. He was credited with just one blocked shot, but as coach Derek Kellogg observed, “Having Cady’s presence in there, I think, changed a bunch of shots, which is nice.”
The game remained tight until Riley took an outlet pass with 6:15 left and raced up the right sideline on a two-on-one break, pulled up just before the 3-point arc and let fly with a jumper that you just knew was going in even before the ball had left his fingertips. It hit nothing but net, putting UMass up by 8 and fueling a 14-2 run that ended with the Minutemen up, 79-64.
“It looked like the way UMass basketball looks like, where we’re hitting ahead and if you’ve got a good, open shot, even if it’s a three, a quick one, we’ll take it,” said Kellogg. “And Freddie’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, which is nice to see.
“When he made it, it gave us the separation that we needed.”
Kellogg appreciated his players’ ability to create such separation — although he wishes they didn’t have to do it more than once a game.
“We’re starting to have a little spurt-ability where we can put some plays together back to back,” he said. “If we can do a little better job of tightening up and continue to facilitate our runs, then we’ll get a point where I feel our team can compete at the highest level.”