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La Salle 72, UMass 71

Last-second hoop proves not enough for UMass

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / February 19, 2012
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AMHERST - Home, bittersweet home.

The University of Massachusetts had been unbeatable on its familiar hardwood all season. But unless you’re cookin’ at home like Kentucky or, um, Harvard, all flawless things must come to an end.

The Minutemen didn’t allow perfection to be blemished easily, though. They fought back from a 9-point deficit in the game’s final six minutes last night at the Mullins Center and made La Salle earn its 72-71 victory in a feverish final minute.

Make that the final second.

Terrell Vinson sent the crowd of 6,283 into its umpteenth frenzy when, with the Explorers ahead by 3 in the final moments and having just survived a miss by Chaz Williams from behind the arc, the junior forward grabbed a ball that was tapped out to him from a scramble underneath and fired up a jumper that fell into the net as the horn sounded. But while the ecstatic fans were thinking overtime, the referee nearest Vinson was thinking game over. He held up two fingers, indicating that the shooter was not beyond the arc. The ruling was upheld by a review of the courtside monitor, conducted amid a din of fan upheaval.

“I thought I stepped back,’’ said Vinson. “I tried to get behind the line. But the replay showed that I was on the line.’’

Perhaps the best vantage point was at the UMass bench, which was within a few feet of Vinson. What did Derek Kellogg think of the ruling? “They wouldn’t let me get close to the monitor,’’ said the coach, “but I thought it was a 2, even live. I thought he might have got tapped on the wrist a little bit, but it was a 2.’’

The loss dropped UMass (18-8, 7-5 Atlantic 10) to 12-1 at home. The Minutemen had been on their best run since 1993-94, when they went 14-0 on their court. Their 11 straight wins at Mullins (the other home victory came in the season opener at Curry Hicks Cage) marked the third-best streak in the building’s history. UMass won its first 27 games played there from 1993-95.

Thus ends one chapter for UMass - and starts another. Over the next 11 days, the Minutemen will have their mettle tested, hosting Xavier Tuesday night, then traveling to Dayton and league-leading Temple. With the Minutemen having just fallen out of third place in the A-10, poor performances over this upcoming stretch could send them into free fall going into its regular season-ending home game against last-place Rhode Island.

Kellogg understands that his team needs to step up and not allow opportunities to slip away like it did against La Salle (18-9, 7-5). “I thought we were a little sloppy at times and didn’t take advantage of some opportunities,’’ he said. “Sometimes the plays you don’t make lead to you not winning the game.’’

The coach can’t argue, though, with the attitude of his point guard and leading scorer. “Close games are always going to hurt more than blowouts,’’ said Williams (11 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds). “But we know the position we’re in, so we know not to dwell on this. We’re looking forward to practice tomorrow.’’

Kellogg also has to envision a bright future - both in the short and long term - after witnessing the production of Maxie Esho, who was a force off the bench, especially in the second half. The redshirt freshman scored 10 of his team-leading (and career-high) 18 points after intermission.

“I thought he changed the complexion of the game with his energy and his athleticism,’’ said Kellogg. “The way I see it, as the coach, is that he should be playing more.’’

And perhaps practicing free throws more.

Tyreek Duren (15 points) had just broken a 66-66 tie with a sweet fallaway in the lane with 48 seconds left, and Esho had a chance to bring the Minutemen back level when he was fouled at the other end. But while Esho had been on fire from the field (7 of 9), he’d struggled from the line (4 of 9). And sure enough, he missed the front end of the one-and-one.

However, he’d have another chance.

After Earl Pettis (18 points, five 3-pointers) and Duren each added a free throw to make it 70-66 with 25 seconds left, Esho rebounded a miss by Raphiael Putney (17 points) and made the follow while being fouled. He hit his free throw this time, and with 13 seconds left it was a 1-point game.

UMass fouled Duren again, the sophomore hit two freebies, and the Minutemen came down the court looking for a 3-pointer to tie it. When Williams missed from beyond the arc at the top of the key, the crowd groaned. But the big men underneath scrambled for the rebound, the ball was tapped out to Vinson, and he let fly just before the buzzer sounded. The shot fell through the net, and the building came alive again.

Three-pointer? Overtime?

Nope. Two points. Game - and home winning streak - over.

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