UMass hangs on

AMHERST — All the good work UMass had put in to build a 19-point second-half lead Saturday came all but unraveled in a flash.

East Carolina reeled in the Minutemen by unleashing a vicious press, made 10-of-13 shots at one stretch and pulled to within three points with just over a minute to play, before UMass could stabilize the matter and walk out of its own gym for the final time in 2012 with an 88-81 non-conference victory at the Mullins Center.

Chaz Williams put the wraps on his 26-point, 11-assist day for the Minutemen with eight straight free throws in the last 55 seconds, just after the visiting Pirates got to within 80-77 with 1:03 to go on a 3-pointer by Robert Sampson. For the afternoon, Williams went 15-of-16 at the line, the most free throws by a Minuteman since Lou Roe made 17-of-23 against Duquesne on March 2, 1994.

Jesse Morgan, one game after a career-high 35 points against Ohio, finished with 15 points Saturday, as did Terrell Vinson, who moved to within one point of 1,000 for his UMass career. Freddie Riley came off the UMass bench to drop four 3-pointers and a season-best 14 points.

“We’re 7-3, playing pretty good, not great, but I think we’re doing some better things,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “I was very frustrated, you’re up 17, you’ve got to just close the game out. I’ll take some responsibility, we haven’t really worked on a press attack, and we kind of slowed down a little bit instead of attacking the press. They fought back and never stopped playing.”

East Carolina, also 7-3, was led by Maurice Kemp with 21 points. Sampson had 14 with nine rebounds and Akeem Richmond, a transfer from Rhode Island who’d had some breakout games against UMass while with the Rams, scored 11 off the bench.

At the start, the Minutemen flew to a 14-0 lead five minutes in, with four Williams free throws around a bucket by Morgan, then consecutive treys by Raphiael Putney and Morgan and two freebies by Vinson. Kemp finally got ECU on the board with a jumper with 15:03 to go.

UMass then doubled an eight-point lead with an 8-0 run to go up 31-15, its largest lead of the half, but it didn’t last as Richmond came off the bench to hit all three of his 3-pointers. The Pirates crawled back to within 39-36 on Richmond’s two foul shots with eight seconds left, but that was enough time for Morgan to stick a deep 3-pointer to beat the horn and give UMass a 42-36 lead at the break.

The Minutemen then ripped off 16 unanswered points to build the lead from 47-44 to 63-44, helped along by 3-pointers by Morgan and Riley and six points by Williams. When ECU rallied to within 12 at 65-53, Kellogg called an instant timeout, and UMass came out of the stoppage to run off seven more in a row.

UMass still led 75-58 on Riley’s trey with 5:41 remaining but the Pirates began their big move, scoring the next nine points. Paris Roberts-Campbell dropped a 3-pointer to make it 76-72 at the 3:19 mark, but Sampson Carter scored for UMass and the teams exchanged hoops before Sampson’s 3-pointer made it an 80-77 game.

Williams then scored UMass’ last eight points from the line as East Carolina missed five of its last six shots from the floor.

“It’s just a lot of excitement between us,” said Williams of the Minutemen’s newfound ability to go on decisive runs. “It’s togetherness with everybody on the court. We’re there for each other, we have each other’s back and we’re ready to play for anything.”

Riley, who had not scored more than five points in a game this season and averaged 2.4 points prior to Saturday, almost matched his season total of five 3-pointers. He also went up against a pair of his Florida high school friends, ECU starters Miguel Paul and Ty Armstrong.

“I’m just happy we make runs when I’m in the game,” said Riley. “It’s a way for me to make a case for more playing time.”

UMass takes a Christmas break before a Midwestern swing that sends the Minutemen to DeKalb, Ill., Saturday to face Northern Illinois and a Jan. 2 game against Miami (Ohio) in Oxford, Ohio, before returning to Amherst Jan. 5 to host Eastern Michigan at 2 p.m.

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