Saturday's game pitted the Atlantic 10's top offense (UMass) and top defense (St. Louis) in a matchup pitting two of the five team's tied at the top of the conference standings. For at least one afternoon offense prevailed, as the Minutemen earned their biggest win of the season by a 72-59 margin and sole possesion of first place. Here were the three most important things to take away from UMass' win.
1. Getting Off to A Hot Start St. Louis was coming off a huge road victory at Xavier that had some critics claiming they were one of, if not, the team to beat in the A10. With the Bilikens completely comfortable playing in tough road environments, UMass needed a hot start to make sure the crowd would be in the game and to make sure they could avoid another offensive letdown. They accomplished both feats and more with a 45-point outburst in the first half; the 45 points were the most the Bilikens had given up in a half all season long. UMass shot 65 percent (19-of-29) in the half and earned their largest lead at halftime all season (19 points). But how did it happen?
After a back-and-forth first 13 minutes, UMass used a 20-5 run to break open the game and torch the Bilikens. With the Minutemen holding a slim 25-21 lead with 8:05 to play, sophomores Chaz Williams and Raphiael Putney combined for 18 of the 20 UMass points over the next 7:14. Williams started the run with a jumper, assisted on a Sean Carter layup, finished on another layup before Putney took over. Putney knocked down a layup, a 3-pointer, two more layups and a 3-pointer (12 points), only broken up by a Williams layup. Overall UMass hit 9-of-10 shots in the span and nearly knocked St. Louis out of the game.
The second half was a different story with the Bilikens jumping all over with the Minutemen with an 18-7 run to close the gap. UMass' lead was cut to as few as five points with 5:33 to play as the Bilikens defense held UMass to 28 percent shooting (6-of-21) in the second half, but the Minutemen finished strong behind their free throw shooting (17-of-21).
2. Protecting Home Court: Entering the game the Minutemen's biggest strength this season had been their play at home, Saturday's win ensured that the Mullins Center will continue to be one of the toughest places to play in the A10 for the rest of the year. Just under 8,400 Minutemen fans showed up to the Mullins Center for the game and continued to make the Mullins Center a rowdy atmosphere. With the win UMass earned their 11th straight win at home to begin the season, moving them into a tie for 22nd nationally for longest home winning streak in the nation.
It's essential for UMass to hold serve at home because the young squad doesn't have the same confidence on the road (3-3). With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Minutemen have four more dates in Amherst, three of them against conference contenders. In the month of February the Mullins Center will play host to second-place teams St. Bonaventure (4-2) and LaSalle (4-2), and perennial A10 contender Xavier (4-3). Three more wins could ensure UMass with at least an at-large bid to the NIT, and keep them within the top half of the A10 standings in preparation for the conference tournament.
3. Moving Closer To The Bubble: If you want to put a quantitative value on how big the victory was-the number's 13. Between Wednesday and the conclusion of Saturday's game, UMass jumped 13 spots in the RPI rankings, moving from 65 to 50. With RPI serving as a major indicator of where a team lies in terms of a postseason berth, the Minutemen's win obviously had a huge impact, but there's more than that. St. Louis was just the second team UMass has beaten this season that is currently projected to be one of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament and is the team's biggest win of the year. If the Minutemen can add one or more trophy wins this season (Xavier, Dayton, Temple) they can bank on a NIT berth and could even get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 1998. Not bad for a one win.