AMHERST — It might have been a surprise to see the UMass Minutemen locked in another tight game with Rhode Island as the clock sneaked under a minute to play at the Mullins Center. Based on the Rams’ season so far, the result was hardly a surprise.
The Minutemen have a veteran group, starting three redshirt seniors and a junior. URI has but one senior on its entire roster, and uses three freshmen in its eight-man rotation. Edge in experience, especially in a tight game: UMass.
Closing out nail-biters has been a struggle for URI this season. The good news for the Rams is they’ve frequently given themselves late-game opportunities to win. The bad news? They haven’t come through too often.
It was UMass making all the clutch plays down the stretch on Wednesday night, forcing a pair of turnovers in the final minute and going 4 for 4 from the free-throw line. The 70-67 victory spared the Minutemen a bad loss, and extended URI’s close-game woes; the Rams now have lost seven games this season by 5 points or fewer. The same thing happened when the teams met Feb. 9 in Kingston, with UMass rallying late for a 73-68 win.
This one proved to be just as difficult. UMass trailed, 60-56, with 4:46 left, before going on a 10-4 run and taking the lead for good on a driving layup by Derrick Gordon (9 points) with 1:36 left.
“If I miss a shot I’m going to keep shooting, I’m not going to miss a shot and get down on myself,” said Gordon, who added 10 rebounds and helped UMass enjoy a 41-28 rebound advantage. “The acrobatic layup that I hit came at the right time.”
It still wasn’t over. After an offensive foul was called on UMass, URI had the ball with 56 seconds left and trailing by a point, 66-65. But Gilvydas Biruta was called for traveling, and the Minutemen pushed the lead to 3 on a pair of free throws by Chaz Williams (team-high 16 points) with 24.4 seconds left.
With one last chance to tie, URI passed the ball around the arc but couldn’t get a clean look at a 3-pointer, and Xavier Munford had his shot blocked in the lane by Cady Lalanne while driving for a layup and with under five seconds left. Another gutty win for UMass (22-5, 9-4 Atlantic 10), another frustrating loss for URI (12-17, 3-11).
“Defensively, I thought if we get our pressure and clamp down a little bit, we can make them make some mistakes. They went to some guys that weren’t their primary options down the stretch, because of our pressure,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “That’s the one nice thing about having seniors and juniors and guys that have been around the game a long time. I think they have a decent feel now of what to do coming down the stretch. We haven’t won all of them, but we’ve done pretty well in the last three minutes of games, really, the last two years.”
Making shots usually isn’t a frustrating issue for the Minutemen; UMass is second in the A-10 in field goal percentage, coming into the game at a 47.2 percent clip. But they couldn’t find the basket at the start, missing 20 of their first 23 shots, an assortment of floaters, jumpers, contested layups, and wide-open 3-pointers.
The mass misses were the main reason they fell behind by double digits to the double-digit underdog Rams. A short bank shot by Biruta put URI up, 21-8, nearly 12 minutes in.
Less than a minute later, after a baseline jumper by Gordon and a 3-pointer from Sampson Carter (11 points), UMass had cut the lead to 8. The Minutemen never led until the final minute of the first half, a transition 3-pointer from Trey Davis (8 first-half points) giving them a 31-28 lead.
UMass was up, 31-30, at halftime, with the Minutemen shooting 29 percent (11 for 38) in the opening 20 minutes. UMass got back into the game with rebounding, especially off its misses; 14 offensive rebounds led to 9 second-chance points in the first half.
The Minutemen threatened to blow the game open at the start of the second half, scoring the first 8 points to stretch the lead to 39-30. But they could never put the Rams away, with URI eventually taking a 55-54 lead on a layup from Munford. But there was still seven minutes left, and even after taking the 4-point lead, there was plenty of time — and history — on the side of UMass.
“It was nip-and-tuck the whole second half,” Kellogg said. “It was nice to win. Right now every game is important.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.