Courtesy of Leon Chuck, Pressbox Photo LLC UMass' Derrick Gordon defends at the top of the key against University of Dayton guard Vee Sanford.
DAYTON, Ohio — The surge that has rescued the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team from so many flat stretches this season came too late Saturday.
After a back-and-forth first half, the Minutemen emerged from intermission out of sync and didn’t recover as March started with a dud for UMass, which fell to Dayton 86-79 at UD Arena.
While conventional wisdom is that UMass (22-6, 9-5 Atlantic 10) has already done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, Dayton (20-9, 8-6 A-10) badly needed a victory to keep its chances alive.
“That stings a lot. This was a game to build their résumé and we let them do it,” UMass sophomore guard Trey Davis said. “They came out hard and with intensity and we came out sluggish thinking we were going to win.”
Senior point guard Chaz Williams agreed.
“They just beat us to 50-50 balls. It looked like they wanted it more than us. It stood out. We can’t play like that if we’re trying to win games and do something special,” he said. “We can’t come out and play like we did today.”
UMass coach Derek Kellogg was frustrated with his team’s defense, which allowed the Flyers to shoot 50 percent from the floor (28 for 56) in the game and 56 percent (14 for 25) in the second half.
“I thought it was a toughness thing today,” Kellogg said. “It wasn’t energy or intensity, we need to play tougher, come up with balls and make plays that are the difference between winning or losing. That part of it is what really annoyed me.”
The Minutemen led 37-32 with 1 minutes, 49 seconds left until intermission, but Dayton scored the last four points of the first half and the first nine of the second to seize control of the game.
“That set the tone,” Kellogg said. “We were fighting to get back in the game for the next 18 minutes.”
The Minutemen didn’t really start to rally until Dayton stretched its lead to 75-64 with 3:42 seconds remaining. Davis hit a 3-pointer that started a 13-5 surge that cut the UMass deficit to three points at 80-77 with 40 seconds left, but Flyer guard Khari Price answered with two free throws and Williams turned the ball over at the other end, ending the Minutemen’s comeback hopes.
“We have to come out harder. We have to come out with more toughness and more intensity,” Davis said. “In the second half we came out too sluggish. They stabbed us right in the heart. They took that lead and we never came back.”
Davis led UMass with 19 points, but didn’t have an assist and struggled defensively. Williams scored 17 points on the strength of seven free throws, but shot 5 for 17 from the field.
Jordan Sibert led the Flyers with a career-high 23 points, while Dyshawn Pierre added 16 points.
The Minutemen entered the game leading the Atlantic 10 with 15.6 assists per game, but had just six compared to 11 turnovers.
“We usually have 10 or more assists per game,” Williams said. “Today with six assists and five from me, it means we weren’t doing what we usually do and it took away from our game plan.”
UMass is at Duquesne in Pittsburgh on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Williams said he hopes that game will launch the Minutemen back on the right track.
“This was a humbling experience. Every game is a lesson,” Williams said. “We understand what we did wrong and where we went wrong. We’re going to try to correct that and get back on path.”
Kellogg didn’t shout at his team in the locker room after the game, but challenged them.
“The message was, ‘What do you guys want to do with the rest of the season and where do you want to go with this?’” Kellogg said. “We need all 12 guys committing that we’re going to do it the right way every time out. Hopefully that resonates.”