Massachusetts head coach Derek Kellogg shouts instructions to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Saint Louis in Amherst, Mass., Sunday, March 9, 2014. St. Louis won 64-62. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It looked like Chaz Williams’ ultimate nightmare scenario. The University of Massachusetts senior was in the midst of one of the worst games of his career. If the Minutemen lost the game, it would have been a bad loss on a bad performance final game playing in his home town of Brooklyn.
But on a night where the UMass offense was out of sync, it’s second-half defense, led by Williams, allowed them to escape with a 65-61 win over Rhode Island in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament at the Barclays Center.
The Minutemen (24-7) advanced to face No. 3 George Washington, Friday at 9 p.m. Rhode Island finished its season at 14-18.
“Rhode Island played us tooth and nail all the way to end. Obviously our guys made some plays to come away with a victory on a night where we didn’t shoot the ball well,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said.
After a Xavier Munford basket inside with 9:50 to put the Rams up 55-46, UMass appeared to be in trouble. But the Minutemen, who shot poorly throughout, dug in defensively. Rhode Island didn’t make another shot from the floor until there was two seconds left and the game was out of reach.
UMass still struggled to scored, but cobbled together a 16-2 run. Williams shot just 3-for-12 from the floor, but he smothered Munford, who had torched the Minutemen for 18 first-half points. Munford was 3-for-10 from the field after intermission and had just six points in the second half.
With the scored tied 56-56, Williams got fouled driving to the basket and made both free throws. The Rams, who shot 5-for-14 from the line in the second half, missed a chance to tie when Gilvydas Biruta (10 points, eight rebounds) missed two.
Sensing an opportunity, Williams, who’d missed all five previous 3-pointers, made a hard jab step to free himself at the top of the key and then pulled back for a 3-pointer that gave UMass a 61-56 lead, essentially sealing the win.
“I didn’t want to let those guys down,” Williams said. “I felt like I needed to make a stand somewhere. I felt like I wasn’t making shots. I wanted to take the defensive assignment and guard Munford. Once I made a shot I was like ‘Finally!’”
Kellogg sat Williams early in the second half, hoping to refocus his senior leader.
“It worked out. He came back more focused and I thought his defense was fantastic down the stretch,” Kellogg said.
Maxie Esho led UMass with 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
“He was the one that kept us going in the first half and early in the second half,” Williams said. “Everybody jumped on his shoulders and followed his lead.”
Williams added 11 points, three assists and four steals, while Derrick Gordon added 10 points.
Rhode Island’s game notes called Munford’s absence from any of the all-conference teams “the biggest robbery since the Lufthansa Heist in 1978.” Munford seemed to be staging his own protest on the court. He made his first six shots, including three 3-pointers en route to 18 first-half points as the Rams led 37-29 at intermission. The Minutemen shot 8-for-29 from the field in the first half.
“We were out of sorts in the first half,” Kellogg said. “We started playing a little selfish. We had a good halftime pow-wow and they came out and competed hard in the second half.”
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage