AMHERST — The sound you heard was a bubble being burst.
The University of Massachusetts was in a tenuous position Wednesday night when it took to its home court against Butler. Sitting in sixth place in the Atlantic 10, with 18 victories but few that the NCAA Tournament committee likely would view as so-called quality wins, the Minutemen were playing for their postseason life.
Their fans were aware of the gravity of the situation and turned out to the tune of 9,341, the largest non-sellout crowd in the 20-year history of the Mullins Center. And there were 3,526 jammed into the student section. But UMass gave the home faithful little to cheer about, getting beat on the offensive boards again and again as Butler took advantage of innumerable second-chance opportunities to pull away for a 73-62 victory.
“We couldn’t find our rhythm or our groove,” said point guard Chaz Williams, who managed 8 points and eight assists but got bottled up by double teams, leading to a 2-of-9 shooting night, including 0 of 4 from beyond the 3-point arc. “Our game is transition, and we weren’t getting any transition chances. It was real frustrating.”
It’s impossible to get in transition without the ball, and it seemed like the ball was in the hands of Butler all night. The Bulldogs (23-7, 10-5) had a 37-20 edge in rebounds, and 17 of those boards came on the offensive glass. “You get outrebounded by 17, that’s unacceptable,” said coach Derek Kellogg. “They actually out-toughed us.”
This one could have been big for UMass (18-10, 8-7). Butler arrived in Amherst newly unranked, having lost two in a row. But before this week, the Bulldogs had spent 11 weeks in the Top 25 after pulling off an upset of then-No. 1 Indiana in December. They’ve since taken down Gonzaga, which now resides in the top spot in the national rankings. The Minutemen could have put themselves on more solid ground with a victory, but now must rely on a big-time performance in the A-10 tourney.
Right from the start, UMass struggled to find an offensive rhythm. The one early stretch that got the home crowd going came after Butler had used an 8-2 run to build an 8-point lead with just under 12 minutes left in the half. The Minutemen came out of a timeout and Williams took charge, stealing the ball in the backcourt and scoring on a drive, his only basket of the half, then feeding Cady Lalanne for a dunk and Raphiael Putney for a layup to make it a 2-point game. But the visitors steadily inched the lead back to 8 before halftime, and UMass walked into the locker room with their fewest points (22) in a first half all season.
It only got worse in the second half. Rotnei Clarke, Butler’s top scorer on the season, had shot 0 for 6 from beyond the 3-point line in the first half, but after the break he hit his first. Then he hit another to boost the Bulldogs’ lead to 14 less than three minutes into the half. Before the night was over, Clarke had 17 points.
The only answer the Minutemen had was Terrell Vinson, who scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half. It was a stellar performance, but small consolation. “Yeah, I’d rather have the win,” he said. “But the season is far from over.”