Mississippi State guard Dee Bost (3) shoots againt Massachusetts forward Raphiael Putney (34) during the first half of their NIT first-round college basketball game in Starkville, Miss., Tuesday, March 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
KINGSTON, R.I. — With 42 seconds left in the game and the University of Massachusetts clinging to a three-point lead, a Chaz Williams turnover gave Rhode Island’s T.J. Buchanan what looked like a free and clear path to the basket for an easy layup or dunk.
But Raphiael Putney raced back and as the unsuspecting Rams guard went up for a layup on the right side of the basket, Putney got his left hand on the ball for the block. The ball stayed in bounds until Derrick Gordon corralled it with 38 seconds left.
While URI coach Danny Hurley and most of the 6,511 fans shouted for a foul, replays showed a clean block. UMass made 5-of-6 free throws after that to seal the 73-68 win at the Ryan Center, Sunday.
Putney was unabashedly proud of the play.
“It was a close game. I couldn’t let them have that free layup so I had to do everything I could,” Putney said. “I’m known for blocking shots on a chase down run, I just got it. It was a great block by me. It changed the game. Their intensity just dropped after that play.”
While Williams’ turnover led to Putney’s block, the rest of his play led to the victory.
“I just didn’t want to lose,” Williams said. “I was just trying to do anything in my power to bring the team back.”
Three free throws by Xavier Munford (19 points) gave Rhode Island (11-13, 2-7 A-10) a 62-55 lead with 8:35 left. Williams started the comeback with one free throw followed by a layup off a Gordon steal that made it 62-58 with 6:38 left.
After a turnover by URI’s E.C. Matthews (21 points, seven assists), Williams got a wide-open look at a 3-pointer, but it was off the mark. Undaunted, Williams drove into traffic on UMass’ next possession. When the Rams converged on him, Williams threw a no-look, behind-the-head pass to Maxie Esho, who was open under the basket for an easy dunk that made it 62-60 with 5:11 left.
“That’s something that’s in the arsenal. I was just waiting until now,” Williams joked, cracking a smile. “No, it was just me making a basketball play. I always know where Maxie is going to be. I saw him creeping behind the defense. I just wanted to get him the ball.”
Williams extended the run to 7-0 with two free throws that tied the game at 62-62, before Gilvydas Biruta scored inside to push URI back up 64-62 with 4:16 left.
But Williams kept coming, tying the game with a tough-angle layup.
Munford then drew a foul on Gordon, but he only made one free throw with 3:44 left to give URI a 65-64 edge, its last lead of the game.
Williams sank a jumper to put UMass ahead and Gordon turned Cady Lalanne’s steal into a layup to extend the Minutemen lead to 68-65 before Putney’s block all but sealed it.
Rhode Island was forced to foul and Williams made two free throws to cap his 21-point, seven-assist (four turnover) performance.
Matthews, who is making a late push for Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors, missed a 3-pointer but got his own rebound and then made a 3 to make it 72-68. But UMass got Trey Davis, its best free-throw shooter, to the line twice in the final 15 seconds and he made three of four to seal the victory as UMass finished the game on a 18-6 run.
Hurley tipped his hat to Williams after the game.
“We failed to close it out. A lot of it had to do with that Chaz Williams guy. He’s a heck of a player,” Hurley said. “He’s a player of the year candidate and one of the best point guards in the country. He was outstanding late. He just made so many plays and threw up a variety of very difficult shots.”
UMass coach Derek Kellogg was more excited than relieved after the game.
“I’m very proud of the team. They played really hard,” Kellogg said. “That was a big-time road win for us. We’ll take it. ... Any win right now I feel great about.”
UMass (19-4, 6-3 Atlantic 10) will host George Mason, Wednesday at 7 p.m.