PITTSBURGH — If it’s going to get done by the UMass Minutemen this men’s basketball season, it likely won’t be easy.
Trailing yet again in the closing minutes, the Minutemen found a way at Duquesne on Wednesday, using 7 late points by Trey Davis to walk out of the Palumbo Center with a 78-74 win. The tight back-and-forth resembled many of their games, especially in the Atlantic 10; in eight of UMass’s 10 conference wins, it’s trailed at some point in the final five minutes.
No different against the Dukes. This time it was 72-71, until Davis — who scored the final 10 UMass points — buried his fourth 3-pointer of the second half, taking a pass from Chaz Williams, who drew the defense with penetration, then flicked a pass to his backcourt mate, alone on the left wing. Bulls-eye. With 1:41 left, in a game UMass once trailed by 11 points, it now held a 74-72 lead.
The assist was just as meaningful as the go-ahead shot; it gave Williams six for the game and 678 for his Amherst career, enough to tie him with Chris Lowe for the all-time UMass lead. Williams will need to wait until Sunday’s regular-season finale against No. 17 Saint Louis to have the record to himself.
Duquesne (12-16, 4-11) still had chances after Davis’s 3-pointer, but Maxie Esho tipped the ball away from Ovie Soko to thwart one possession, and Cady Lalanne blocked a shot in the lane by Micah Mason with 23.5 seconds left. Davis, who had a team-high 20 points, closed it out from there, making four free throws – the first pair with 6.4 seconds left, the next two with 0.5 remaining – to keep UMass (23-6, 10-5) on pace for a top-four seed in the conference tournament next week in Brooklyn.
In the eyes of UMass coach Derek Kellogg, it also sealed a trip to the NCAA Tournament, which would be the program’s first since 1998.
“Against a team that’s been playing really well, I thought [we] played well tonight to squeak out a victory after being down in the last couple minutes,” Kellogg said. “I’m proud of these guys that they persevered and came away with a big win in a tough game. Trey did some big stuff at the end, which was huge for us.”
Davis began the game-ending personal highlight package with a deep 3-pointer as the shot clock was winding down, putting UMass ahead, 71-70. Davis made 4-of-7 behind the arc in the second half, when he scored 16 of his 20 points.
“I felt good. I told Chaz just to keep finding me,” said Davis, whose 20 points tied his career high. Despite being the first or second player off the bench as a reserve – on Wednesday Davis was actually the third UMass substitute – he’s averaged 15.1 points over his past six games.
His points were needed against the Dukes. For much of the first half, Duquesne didn’t look like the team that’s struggled this season, especially at home. Instead, the Dukes resembled the dangerous squad that was coming off a win at Saint Louis last Thursday, handing the Billikens, then ranked 10th nationally, their first conference loss.
Duquesne raced to a 27-16 lead midway through the first half, using six early offensive rebounds to extend possessions and keep UMass from getting out on the break. They found Mason behind the arc (good thing, since he leads the NCAA in 3-point shooting percentage, coming into the game at a 56.6-percent clip). He made 4-of-6 for the game on his way to 20 points, and the Dukes actually had more fast-break points (26-19) than UMass.
Williams wasn’t the only senior to reach a UMass milestone. Raphiael Putney hadn’t cracked double figures in scoring in any of the past five games, but had 10 points by halftime and finished with 12. Needing 6 points to become the 46th player in program history with 1,000 points, Putney hit the mark on a driving layup with 8:43 left, cutting Duquesne’s lead to 27-20. It was part of a 21-6 UMass run, with Putney’s transition dunk after a steal by Williams giving the Minutemen a 37-33 lead. They led at the break, 41-40.
After another slow start, this time to the second half, UMass hit the gas, ripping off three 3-pointers in a 49-second span, part of a 23-11 run that flipped a 47-43 deficit into a 66-58 lead.
Duquesne answered with a 10-0 run, setting the stage for Davis. He came through late, with the game on the line. Someone usually does. It’s been a pattern this season for the Minutemen, and should come in handy at tournament time.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.