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UMass 97, Central Conn. 65

Minutemen relentless in rout

Hot UMass pays back Blue Devils

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2011
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AMHERST - The early bird catches the worm. A stitch in time saves nine. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Our culture is filled with time-proven adages pointing out the advantage of getting off to a good start.

Maybe the University of Massachusetts basketball team is finally giving history its due.

After falling behind in somnolent first halves in their last three games, only to come alive after intermission for heart-thumping surges to victory, the Minutemen took a different approach last night against Central Connecticut State, charging ahead from the get-go and coasting to a 97-65 victory before 3,576 at the Mullins Center.

It was the fifth straight victory for UMass (11-3), which is 7-0 at home. The Minutemen begin their Atlantic 10 schedule Thursday against Fordham in Amherst.

“The guys, I think they wanted to prove something after last year,’’ said UMass coach Derek Kellogg, referring to last season’s 29-point loss at Central Connecticut in which the Minutemen fell behind, 33-9. “I didn’t bring it up much this week, but I think they understand that what went on down there last year was unacceptable.’’

This time, the game didn’t start so well for the Blue Devils (5-7 and losers of five straight). In fact, they trailed even before it began. A technical foul for dunking during warm-ups sent Chaz Williams to the free throw line, and he hit 1 of 2.

After tipoff, UMass built on its holiday-gift lead, going on a 13-0 run that made it 16-4 less than five minutes into the game. The Minutemen made good use of long-range shooting (3-pointers from Terrell Vinson, Raphiael Putney, and Williams) and full-court pressure defense (Central Connecticut turned the ball over on three straight possessions).

“It just shows our maturity as a team,’’ said Jesse Morgan, who scored 4 of his 6 points during the spurt. “The focus of the players, right from the start, it’s becoming like our job.’’

Central Connecticut did fight back with an 8-0 run, sparked by a couple of slick baskets by Robby Ptacek (team-leading 21 points), to pull within 7 midway through the half. But the Minutemen once again took charge, with Sean Carter (8 points, 7 rebounds, and lots of defensive intimidation underneath) and Cady Lalanne (12 points, 8 rebounds off the bench) both getting dunks off of feeds from Morgan (7 assists). Clamp-on defense led to more turnovers and breakaways, crisp ball movement led to 3-pointers, and by intermission UMass had a 47-32 lead.

The second half had none of the drama of recent games. UMass started with a 12-5 spurt, with Putney (18 points, 8 rebounds) hitting a pair of 3-pointers, then a dunk off a Morgan alley-oop, to put the Minutemen ahead by 22 points. “When my teammates are able to find me,’’ said the 6-foot-9-inch redshirt sophomore, “I want to finish the play to get the energy going.’’

He was referring to the energy of his team, but he might as well have been talking about the raucous exhilaration in the building. The fans, many of whom were no doubt aware of last season’s debacle in New Britain, Conn., were roaring all the way to the finish.

The UMass lead grew to 27 when Williams (18 points) twisted through traffic for a dipsy-doo drive. And after the Blue Devils showed a little life to cut the deficit to 20, the Minutemen (48 rebounds, 15 on the offensive glass) again stepped hard on the gas pedal. A 23-4 run made it a 39-point game with 4:19 left.

“That’s the style of basketball we want to play,’’ said Carter. “That’s the fastest we’ve played this season.’’

And the earliest they’ve started to play.

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