Derek Kellogg wishes he and his team could just keep playing at the Mullins Center in front of the home crowd all season. Thursday night the Minutemen earned their sixth win in a row and ninth straight home victory in an 80-76 victory over Fordham (7-7, 0-1). UMass (12-3, 1-0) won their conference opener for the fourth consecutive year under Kellogg, as five players finished in double-figures on the night.
Minutemen Show They're Learning How To Finish
It's still a process but UMass is slowly showing they know how to close out opponents during this current six-game winning streak. The young Minuteman roster has struggled all year long to finish off opponents in the final minutes of games but in recent wins over Quinnipiac and Davidson, Kellogg's squad has shown more maturity and poise in the closing moments. Thursday night was another example of that slow development as the Minutemen nearly gave up another big lead, before shutting the door on Fordham's comeback bid.
UMass went on a 14-0 run at the 15:47 mark to capture a 58-44 lead, only to see Fordham inch their way back into the game over the final 12:31. With UMass' shots not falling, the Minutemen were forced to claim the game at the free throw line. That's where Chaz Williams stepped in. After missing four of his first six free throw attempts, Williams sunk three free throws in the final 11 seconds to give the Minutemen a four-point win. Williams was once again proved to be the leader for the Minutemen, finishing with a team-high 20 points, to go along with eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Even though he struggled to shoot the ball, like the rest of the Minutemen, he managed to hit his free throws when they mattered most, it's something all the Minutemen are slowly learning how to do.
Double-Doubles Galore In Battle of the Bigs
Four players knotched double-double in the two team's Atlantic 10 opener, in a game that was full of talented big men. Junior Terrell Vinson recorded 14 points and 14 rebounds for UMass, while sophomore forward Raphiael Putney added 10 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. The Rams were just as successful. Junior forward Chris Gaston grabbed 18 rebounds to go along with 16 points and center Kervin Bristol chipped in 11 points and 12 rebounds. It was the first time two Minutemen had recorded double-doubles in the same game since March 5, 2008, when Chris Lowe posted a triple-double and Gary Forbes added a double-double of his own against LaSalle.
Despite the fact that UMass came into the game as the seventh best rebounding team in the nation, their were a lot of factors pointing towards Fordham having an edge inside, with Cady Lalanne out for the Minutemen. Instead, UMass held their own in the paint, keeping virtually even in rebounding (46-45 Rams) and points in the paint (34-30 Rams), while tying Fordham with 13 points in the paint. While Puntey and Vinson were huge parts of the success, senior center Sean Carter had a big game and the UMass guards pulled down eight rebounds.
Shorter Rotation: No Instant Effect
With LaLanne out and senior forward Matt Hill suffering from an injury as well, the Minutemen were only able to put ten healthy bodies in uniform against Fordham. Kellogg decided to only use nine players, with walk-on Andrew McCarthy not seeing any action, which could have led to trouble. Fortunately UMass only suffered from minor foul trouble, with Carter fouling out with a minute to go and Chaz Williams playing 37 minutes despite finishing the game with four fouls. Nonetheless, the Minutemen's fast-paced style and forty minute press can definitely wear a team down but it didn't seem to show tonight.
Yes, the Minutemen struggled shooting the ball, which is very uncharacteristic, but the team got better as the game went on; usually if fatigue is the problem, a player or team will get worse as the game goes on. Instead, UMass shot 43 percent in the second half and recorded their only six fast-break points of the game in the second half. Additionally, UMass turned the ball over just nine times, four in the second half and forced 17 Fordham turnovers. If anything, it was the Rams who showed signs of fatigue against the high-flying Minutemen. Fordham's shot percentages went slightly down in the second half and they couldn't stop fouling UMass. The Minutemen earned a season-high 37 free throws, including 24 in the second half.
UMass will be back in action Sunday at 2 p.m. when they take on LaSalle.