AMHERST — When Sampson Carter threw the inbound pass away with 20 seconds left and Raphiael Putney fouled Melvin Johnson, the sold out Mullins Center crowd, which had been loud for the entire second half, held its collective breath.
The University of Massachusetts’ win over Virginia Commonwealth, that seemed safe moments before, for a second time appeared to be in jeopardy as Johnson made both free throws to cut UMass’ lead to one.
But Chaz Williams, who was hobbled a bit from an early collision, made two free throws and then stripped Briante Weber from behind with eight seconds left. As the crowd roared, Williams made two more from the line to clinch a 80-75 win, Friday.
“I just wanted to make a play,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to give up on the play.”
The Minutemen struggled badly against VCU’s patented “Havoc” defense in two games last year. They turned the ball over a combined 47 times against the Rams’ pressure and trapping style. But with five days to prepare, UMass was much more poised and ready to face it. The Minutemen (21-5, 8-4 Atlantic 10) not only had just 14 turnovers, but they turned the tables on VCU (20-7, 8-4 A-10), forcing 17.
“There’s very few games that we’ve played in that we’ve lost the turnover margin,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “Some of it was sloppiness on our part, but a lot of it was UMass.”
The biggest difference between last year and this year was the play of Trey Davis. Last year, in Richmond, Va., Davis looked overwhelmed. After committing three turnovers in 11 minutes, UMass coach Derek Kellogg took him out of the game. This year, Davis didn’t turn the ball over and had 13 points and two assists in 30 minutes.
“I’m extremely proud of myself. I’ve been in the gym and I’ve been getting positive results,” Davis said. “I’m going to keep staying in the gym and doing what I’m doing.”
Smart took notice.
“He’s a different player,” Smart said. “He’s one of the most improved players in our league. That’s not the same guy we played against last year.”
Williams finished with 20 points, five assists and five turnovers. Derrick Gordon, who added 16 points, shelved his free-throw woes a least for a night by making 4 of 5. Sampson Carter added nine points and 10 rebounds.
Treveon Graham led VCU with 19 points and eight rebounds.
VCU led by nine points twice in the first half, the latest coming with 4:19 left at 33-24. But the Minutemen used a 10-2 run to make it 36-34 before Graham hit a 3-pointer to make it 39-34 at halftime.
The Rams stayed ahead early in the second, but couldn’t pull away. After a 3-pointer by Rob Brandenberg made it 49-44 4:02 into the second half, a Putney dunk started a 12-3 run that put UMass up 56-52 with 11:46 left.
VCU answered with an 11-2 surge of its own that put the visitors ahead 63-58 with just under eight minutes left. But the pendulum kept swinging as UMass scored 10 of the next 14 to take a 68-67 edge.
After the teams traded free throws, Davis put the Minutemen ahead for good when he picked off a Johnson pass and laid the ball in with 4:00 left.
Free throws looked like they were going to be a problem for UMass early, but it made 12 of 14 in the second half to hold on.
“We’re ecstatic with the win, but we realize there’s a lot of legs left to the season,” Kellogg said. “We need to make sure we come out to play every single night.”
UMass hosts Rhode Island, Wednesday at 7 p.m.