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Minutemen sell out, 64-62

UMass point guard Chaz Williams (3) applies defensive pressure on Saint Louis guard Mike McCall Jr. (11) during first-half action of the Billikens' 64-62 A-10 men's basketball win over the host Minutemen at a sold-out Mullins Center Sunday afternoon in Amherst.
Recorder/J. Anthony Roberts.

UMass point guard Chaz Williams (3) applies defensive pressure on Saint Louis guard Mike McCall Jr. (11) during first-half action of the Billikens' 64-62 A-10 men's basketball win over the host Minutemen at a sold-out Mullins Center Sunday afternoon in Amherst. Recorder/J. Anthony Roberts.

AMHERST — Disappointing, frustrating and above all costly.

Senior Day at a sold-out Mullins Center ended with a resounding thud Sunday after Saint Louis guard Jordair Jett drove in for the go-ahead layup with 3.4 seconds left, and UMass’ Chaz Williams came up empty on a 3-point shot from near midcourt as time expired as the Minutemen dropped their regular-season finale to the Billikens, 64-62.

On its face, a loss to the 16th-ranked team in the country — even a team that came into Sunday on a three-game losing streak — may not seem completely unexpected, but this defeat hit the Minutemen (23-7, 10-6 Atlantic 10) hard on multiple levels. UMass fell from a No. 4 seed in the upcoming Atlantic 10 Conference postseason tournament down to No. 6, lost a potential bye into the quarterfinals, and must now play a second-round game against 11th-seeded Rhode Island Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. UMass came from behind twice late to post a pair of narrow wins over URI during the regular season.

Speaking of seeds, UMass’ NCAA tournament possibilities, and where it could be seeded if invited to the Big Dance for the first time since 1998, were also damaged. With five teams ahead of them in the conference standings, stringing together a run in the A-10 tournament may be exactly what’s required for the Minutemen to secure their NCAA invitation.

Saint Louis (26-5, 13-3 A-10) rallied from a seven-point deficit in the last 5½ minutes to clinch the A-10’s regular-season title for the second straight year. Jett, a senior guard playing on a bad knee, made two tying free throws with 1:32 left, tied the game again on a drive to the hoop at the 1:04 mark, and then attacked the rim from deep on the right point for the winning score with 3.4 seconds to play.

With three timeouts still in their pocket, the Minutemen passed up the opportunity to call a play. Williams rushed downcourt near the midline, but his shot hit the right side of the rim and bounced away as time ran out on the regular season.

“We just didn’t make the right plays down the stretch. I thought they executed a little better than we did on both ends of the floor,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “They did what we’ve done in games past, making those plays.

“It hurts a little bit, because I wanted to be a top-four seed and have an extra day to get ready in the A-10 tournament. I’d like to send the seniors off at home with a big win, because the crowd was so great. But we have a little extra work to do.”

Williams had 20 points and nine assists in his final home game, becoming UMass’ all-time career assist leader in the process with 687. Fellow seniors Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney contributed eight and five points respectively. Derrick Gordon finished with 15 points for the Minutemen, 11 of those coming in the second half, and Cady Lalanne had eight.

Trey Davis, UMass’ leading scorer in the two previous games, was hampered by illness and a pregame nosebleed. The sophomore guard went scoreless in only 11 minutes of action.

“That was my fault, I was so frustrated with (Jett’s) layup that I was so close to the baseline and I didn’t get a good enough running start with three seconds left,” said Williams of his last-second heave. “I had to take the shot from further out. But it’s one of those plays where it’s like, man, I’ve gotta make something happen.”

Jett scored 17 points for the Billikens, with Dwayne Evans adding 14 and Mike McCall Jr. 12. Big men Rob Loe and John Manning each scored eight.

At the start, Saint Louis jumped to a 9-2 lead two minutes in before a 10-0 UMass run highlighted by Williams’ back-to-back 3-pointers. The Minutemen led by four on two occasions and took a 35-33 lead to the locker room behind the last two hoops of the half, by Gordon and Putney.

That lead prevailed for nearly 17 minutes of the second half, peaking at 56-49 on Gordon’s 3-point play with 5:48 to go. Saint Louis began to pick away gradually, getting a 7-0 run with a layup by Loe, a deep ball by McCall and Evans’ layup to tie the game 56-56 at the 3:16 mark.

Gordon and Carter restored a four-point UMass lead with baskets to make it 60-56 with 2:14 remaining, before a post-up score by Evans and two foul shots by Jett retied the game. In between, Carter rimmed out a 3-point try that could have put UMass up by five points, with Jett rebounding the miss and getting fouled. Williams gave the Minutemen their last lead at 62-60 with 1:18 to play.

After Jett’s tying basket, a key sequence came with 36 seconds left when Loe blocked Cady Lalanne’s layup try and forced a held ball, giving the ball to the Billikens on the possession arrow. Jett worked around Evans’ high screen and angled in to the right of the lane for the winning lay-in.

“It’s a little bit like if Chaz got the ball at the end of the game,” said Kellogg. “Good players can get to the rim. We had our matchup, and they had their matchup. I kind of wish our guys would have packed the paint a little more. We kind of spread out a little bit and gave (Jett) too much of a driving lane.”

UMass and Rhode Island (14-17, 5-11 A-10) will now meet in an A-10 tournament game for the first time since 1993. The Minutemen beat the Rams Feb. 9 in Kingston, R.I., 73-68, and completed the sweep Feb. 26 at the Mullins Center, 70-67.

Thursday’s winner would advance to face third-seeded George Washington in the quarterfinals Friday at 9 p.m.

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