WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Massachusetts men's basketball team had almost everything working against it.
Sampson Carter scored a team-high 20 points in UMass' 67-61 win at George Washington on Saturday.
The undeniable adversity of coming off its worst loss of the season. Poor free-throw shooting. Extreme foul trouble. A few nagging injuries. And to top it all off, a hostile crowd that seemed to get louder and louder as the game progressed.
But the Minutemen overcame it all, and with it came away with arguably their best win of the season.
Sampson Carter scored a team-high 20 points, Derrick Gordon added 11 and UMass came away with defensive stop after defensive stop down the final stretch to hold on for a 67-61 victory over George Washington in front of 4,705 at the Smith Center on Saturday.
With the victory, the Minutemen (20-5, 7-4 Atlantic 10) are owners of three straight 20-win seasons, but no win this season may have been more satisfying. The deafening celebration from their locker room after the game could say that much.
“I told them after the game, I'm really proud of this group the way they came back after a not-so-great game,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “To come back and show the character that these guys have was nice to see.
“We needed to win. We needed to know what it feels like to win a big road game against a high-level team again, that we can beat one of the top teams in this conference.”
For every UMass run, the Colonials (19-6, 7-4 A-10) seemed to have a counter. And for every GW counter, the Minutemen seemed to have a response.
UMass led by 10 at 51-41 after a Carter layup with 10:49 to go, but GW, behind an increasingly roaring Smith Center crowd, roared back itself. The Colonials went on a 8-0 run to take a 56-55 lead on a Patricio Garino layup, but Gordon had an immediate answer.
The sophomore guard raced back, split the defense and laid it in as he drew a foul. It stopped the bleeding, and at least momentarily quieted the jam-packed crowd.
“I was just trying to find open gaps and open areas,” Gordon said. “An opportunity presented itself and I took advantage of it, and I believe that it helped us gain momentum back and get back in the game.”
From there, it was nip-and-tuck all the way down to the final horn, but it was UMass that had the greater push. The Minutemen didn't allow the Colonials to score a field goal over the last 5:17 of regulation as they locked down defensively and made just enough free throws to prevail.
And that UMass had major foul trouble – Maxie Esho fouled out and Chaz Williams, Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter each had four – made that last stand that just more impressive.
“We just told the guys, 'Be conscious.' It seemed like everybody had three or foul fouls,” Kellogg said. “We did a little zone over the last few minutes to try to hang on. … I thought they did a good job of playing without putting them to the free throw line.”
Carter was the one keeping the Minutemen point-to-point with the Colonials early. The senior made his first three attempts from 3-point range, including one that gave UMass a 17-15 lead. And after falling behind 21-19 on an Isaiah Armwood and-one with 7:13 left in the half, it was Carter who ignited the Minutemen to a 13-1 run that gave them a commanding a 32-22 lead and silenced the crowd.
GW responded, going on a 7-0 run into intermission, five of the points coming from Garino, who scored a game-high 20 points for the Colonials.
Trey Davis, who played for long stretches with Williams in foul trouble, appeared to hurt his left calf after he collided with a defender setting a screen with 9:42 to go in the first half, but he returned less than two minutes later.
The Minutemen prevailed despite going 12-of-26 from the free-throw line, but they'll take this one any way they can get it.
“We needed to win, period,” Williams said. “The way we lost last game we felt like we didn't do enough and what coach wanted us to do and expected us to do. We just wanted to come out today and do all the right things.”
UMass gets a six-day break before hosting VCU on Friday in what's expected to be a sold-out Mullins Center.