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UM roars back

Maxie Esho flushes a two-handed slam dunk during the first half of the Minutemen's 66-62 win over St. Joe's Wednesday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst, where both teams opened their A-10 campaign.
Special to The Recorder/J. Anthony Roberts

Maxie Esho flushes a two-handed slam dunk during the first half of the Minutemen's 66-62 win over St. Joe's Wednesday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst, where both teams opened their A-10 campaign. Special to The Recorder/J. Anthony Roberts

AMHERST — With 6:20 left in the second half Wednesday, and UMass trailing visiting Saint Joseph’s by nine points, the Minutemen’s recent run of uneven play looked for all the world as if it’d culminate in a loss in their Atlantic 10 Conference opener.

That’s when UMass unleashed an 18-5 finishing kick to close out the game and the Hawks, with a steal and slam by Maxie Esho putting the hosts on top to stay with one minute left. Trey Davis added three free throws in the last 33 seconds and the Minutemen got out of the Mullins Center with a pulse-pounding 66-62 victory before 4,621.

The 19th-ranked Minutemen (13-1, 1-0 A-10) got a game-high 22 points from Chaz Williams, 12 more from Maxie Esho and 11 by Raphiael Putney, all in the second half.

Saint Joseph’s, which led 31-28 at halftime, took a 57-48 lead, matching its largest of the night, on a layup by Halil Kanacevic (19 points, 13 rebounds) with 6:23 to go. UMass coach Derek Kellogg called a timeout and momentum began to swing from there, with a pair of foul shots by Williams, treys by Davis and Williams, and another at the line by Williams that made it a 59-57 deficit with 3:43 on the clock.

Freshman DeAndre Bembry answered with a layup for Saint Joseph’s, putting the Hawks up by four, before an inside basket by UMass’ Derrick Gordon. Langston Galloway split a pair of free throws for the Hawks, then Williams drove the lane for a layup to make it 62-61 at the 1:50 mark.

After a Hawks turnover, Bembry rebounded a miss by Gordon and started to dribble upcourt, but Esho, defending him one-on-one, stripped Bembry of the ball before the midcourt line and took it in for an uncontested dunk and a 63-62 UMass lead.

“It was kind of working for them, just going right by me, but he (Bembry) played with the ball,” said Esho. “I saw what he was doing.”

Saint Joseph’s called a timeout with 60 seconds left and Galloway missed a 3-pointer, with Davis controlling the rebound and getting fouled. The sophomore made two at the line with 33 seconds to go, making it 65-62.

Davis then latched onto Papa Ndao’s missed 3-pointer and made one of two shots at the 4.2-second mark for the final margin.

“I didn’t think we played great, and St. Joe’s did some very good stuff,” said Kellogg. “The will to win at the end was nice, though. When you’re gonna try to do something special, you’ve gotta win some games where things don’t go perfect -- you get outrebounded, you shoot very poor from the 3-point line, and we’re gonna have to continue to improve.”

Galloway finished with 18 points for the Hawks (9-5, 0-1 A-10) and Bembry had 16 points and eight rebounds. Saint Joseph’s, already without forward Isaiah Miles (concussion), lost another frontliner, Ronald Roberts, early in the second half with an apparent lower back injury.

“It was a big-boy game, and we weren’t big enough for the game,” said veteran Hawks coach Phil Martelli. “We did not do a good job of ball possession, with 17 turnovers. We did everything in the first half to win, and got a lead, and then gave that away at the start of the second half. It’s disappointing.”

The Hawks opened up an early 16-7 lead just over seven minutes into the game on Galloway’s 3-pointer, but UMass ran a 10-2 burst to get within 18-17. Esho then picked Kanacevic cleanly in the backcourt for a dunk to tie the game at 21-21, and Gordon’s runner gave UMass the edge at 23-21.

Kanacevic snapped a 26-26 tie with a trey of his own, then added a pair of freebies to put the Hawks up five. Williams’ drive and score with 1:25 to play capped the scoring in the half with Saint Joseph’s ahead 31-28.

Out of the break, UMass then rattled off the first seven points of the second half, with a layup by Putney, two foul shots by Sampson Carter and a rainbow trey by Putney for a 35-31 Minuteman lead.

The hosts had it up to six points, 41-35, when Putney scored with 14:05 left, but Saint Joseph’s rallied back and forced three ties. With the score 48-48, Kanacevic scored five quick points, then Bembry and Kanacevic each hit inside for a seemingly comfortable 57-48 Hawks lead with 6:20 remaining.

“At this point, nobody’s going to give you a game anymore,” said Kellogg. “We have to go win the game, try to take the game. Maxie’s play epitomized that. Figure it out, it’s not going to be beautiful and perfect, let’s figure it out and take the win.

“Teams now, you can feel it, they’re coming in. You’re pretty good when you can withstand those teams coming in and they’re really doing a good job of game-planning for us.”

Saint Joseph’s shot 49 percent from the field, best for a UMass opponent so far this season, and outrebounded the Minutemen 35-28. After a 6-of-6 first half, the Hawks shot only 4-of-11 from the line after halftime. UMass ended at 44 percent, made 5-of-15 from 3-point land and turned the ball over only eight times.

“It’s not gonna be a cakewalk, but at the same time, we’re still hungry,” said Williams. “A lot of people are putting a target on us, but we still have targets on everybody else, because we’re still trying to get to the top.”

Williams and Saint Joseph’s Kanacevic each began their college careers at Hofstra and were teammates as freshmen in the 2009-2010 season before both transferred.

UMass hosts St. Bonaventure (11-4, 1-0 A-10) Saturday at 12:30 p.m., to be followed by the first-ever UMass Basketball Legacy Game, featuring 1990s-era Minuteman alumni including Jim McCoy, Will Herndon, Dana Dingle and Carmelo Travieso.

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