GAZETTE FILE PHOTO University of Massachusetts junior Derrick Gordon, right, dribbles toward the basket while freshman Zach Coleman guards him during men's basketball practice at UMass.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two seasons ago, as a freshman for Western Kentucky, Derrick Gordon scored 19 points in three games at the Charleston Classic.
On Thursday, for the University of Massachusetts, he scored 22.
Gordon led six Minutemen who tallied double figures as the Minutemen survived a late rally to defeat Nebraska 96-90 in a quarterfinal matchup of the Charleston Classic at TD Arena.
UMass (4-0) will face No. 19 New Mexico (3-0) in the semifinals at 2:30 p.m. Friday. The Lobos survived a double overtime scare from Alabama-Birmingham before prevailing 97-94 in Friday’s second game.
“After I got my first bucket in the first half, it was just all playing with confidence,” Gordon said. “I’m just getting a lot more comfortable now.”
Gordon had yet to even break into double figures in three games as a Minuteman after averaging 11.8 with the Hilltoppers in 2011-12, before his 8-for-13 shooting performance from the field Thursday.
He scored eight straight for UMass during a key second-half stretch to help the Minutemen build an 82-70 advantage with 7 minutes, 51 seconds left, and it looked like coach Derek Kellogg’s squad was ready to put the game away.
Instead the Cornhuskers rallied, whittling away the UMass advantage over the final few minutes through free throws, which both teams shot frequently throughout the game. The teams combined for 61 fouls and 82 free-throw attempts.
The Cornhuskers made 10-of-12 from the charity stripe in that final 7:51, and closed the gap despite Terran Pettaway, who scored 28, fouling out with 2:30 remaining.
Pettaway’s big afternoon was the only part of the game that Gordon, who spent much of the day defending the Nebraska guard, was not happy about.
“We came out with the win — that’s all that matters — but I take that personally on defense,” Gordon said. “I love playing defense.”
Nebraska pulled within two with 1:39 to play on two free throws by Tai Webster, setting up a tense final 90 seconds for the Minutemen who had controlled play for virtually the entire second half.
There was, however, at least one person on the UMass bench who was not surprised.
“They weren’t going to go away. I think (Nebraska) coach (Tim Miles) has instilled his demeanor and toughness in those guys,” Kellogg said. “I didn’t think they were quitting.”
Chaz Williams, who played just 25 minutes because of foul trouble, restored a four-point advantage for the Minutemen on a layup with 1:26 to go. Webster returned to the free-throw line nine seconds later, and made one before Nebraska grabbed the offensive rebound on his missed second attempt. With a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer, Nebraska never got a shot off. Instead, Deverell Biggs went barreling into Gordon and was whistled for a charge.
“I just wanted to do whatever it took,” Gordon said.
Trey Davis nailed two free throws on the other end, effectively icing the victory. UMass shot 33-of-43 from the line, making 30 or more free-throws for the first time since a Feb. 3, 2007, game against Richmond.
Sampson Carter (16), Cady Lalanne (15), Maxie Esho (13), Raphiael Putney (12) and Williams (10) all notched double figures along with Gordon, marking the first time six players reached the mark since a Nov. 25, 2006, win over Jacksonville State at the Mullins Center.
The offensive outburst came without a significant statistical contribution from Williams, who entered the game averaging 21 points, but needed five points in the final 2:30 just to get to double figures. He tallied only three assists.
Kellogg, though, maintained that Williams was still in control of the game.
“That’s the difference now,” Kellogg said. “He’s got a high IQ, which if you watch, maybe you don’t know sometimes, but when you coach him, he’s calling the plays as he’s coming down saying ‘Coach, we can get this, that or the other.’”
Kellogg was also encouraged by the how effective UMass was scoring without its leader putting up big numbers.
“That hasn’t been the case in the past. I mean, if he didn’t score a certain amount of points against these high-level teams, we wouldn’t have a chance to win,” Kellogg said. “Now, I think he can play his floor game and score depending on how the game goes, and we still have an opportunity to win the game.”