AMHERST --- In any other year, the University of Massachusetts’ men’s basketball season opener against Harvard might have been viewed as an early-season appetizer, a way to ease into the nitty-gritty grind of the season against an opponent from the Ivy League.
Not this year.
The Crimson, who entered the game missing their two best players from last year’s Ivy League championship squad that earned an NCAA berth, gave UMass all it could handle before UMass pulled out a 67-64 victory at the Mullins Center.
Sampson Carter, who had missed his first two field goal attempts of the game, found himself alone in the corner in front of the UMass bench when junior guard Chaz Williams found him with a kickout-pass that Carter converted into a winning 3-pointer, lifting the Minutemen to a thrilling season-opening victory.
Jesse Morgan led the Minutemen with 19 points while Raphiael Putney had 13 and Williams 12.
Harvard was led by Wesley Saunders, who had 18 points, while freshman guard Siyani Chambers added 14 points.
The game, which tipped off at 10 a.m., was the sixth of ESPN’s 11-game College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
After Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry withdrew from school amid allegations of being involved in an academic cheating scandal, Harvard attempted to get back to the business of repeating as Ivy League champions by taking on a UMass squad that returned four starters from last year’s 25-12 squad that advanced to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
Despite trailing by 10 points three times in the final 5:42, the Crimson mounted a 15-4 run in the final 3 1/2 minutes of the first half to pull within 38-37 at halftime on Christian Webster’s knockdown 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Kenyatta Smith, a 6-foot-8-inch sophomore center, gave Harvard its first lead of the game, 39-38, with 19:19 remaining in the second half on a strong up-and-under move beneath the basket.
Putney, however, quickly wrested it away when he converted a backcourt steal into a breezy breakaway basket to make it 40-39. After Maxie Esho blocked Chambers on a run-out attempt, Steve Moundo-Missi followed by keeping the ball alive and putting it back for a layup that gave Harvard a 41-40 lead with 17:24 to go.
A key-top 3-pointer by Esho enabled the Minutemen to regain control of a 43-41 lead, but the Crimson fought back and tied it thrice (at 44, 46, and 54) with 8:13 to go.
Wesley Saunders broke the stalemate with a strong layup to give Harvard a 56-54 lead with 6:37 to go. Morgan converted a backcourt steal into an easy transition scoop to tie it, 56-56. Saunders went to the line after being fouled on a drive to the basket with 5:20 to go, but only managed to convert the first of two attempts to put Harvard up 57-56.
Putney and Webster traded huge 3-pointers and the Crimson led 60-59 with 3:32 to go.
Moundo-Missi extended the lead to 3, 62-59, with 3:06 to go when he induced Terrell Vinson (8 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocked shots) to commit his fifth personal and went to the line and made both ends of the one-and-one bonus.
Saunders gave Harvard its biggest lead, 64-59, when he hit a pair of foul shots with 1:21 to go. Morgan converted a lane leaner with 1:12 left to pull UMass within 3, 64-61, then tied the score with 37.6 seconds left when he splashed a huge 3-pointer.
Sampson, though, provided the heroics for the Minutemen when he converted his wide-open try as the final seconds elapsed.