With the final seconds ticking off the clock, the final result – finally – no longer in doubt, Raphiael Putney raised his arms and pointed to a packed student section with a big smile on his face.
Chaz Williams (left) and Trey Davis (right) celebrate the Minutemen's 92-90 win over LSU on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy James Jesson, Massachusetts Daily Collegian)
Exhilaration. Celebration. Triumph. Relief. The Massachusetts men's basketball team took just about every punch that a loaded, NCAA Tournament-level LSU team could give and stood strong through it all, never losing its cool, never losing its edge as it came away with a 92-90 victory over the Tigers on Tuesday at the Mullins Center.
The Minutemen (2-0) led by as many as 13 in the second half and saw it shrink to one on multiple occasions down the stretch. But they didn't back down, never rolled over to a talented, physical and hungry LSU squad. They answered every run, never gave up the lead, never held their heads. Simply put, they wanted this one more.
“It was very physical, very intense,” said UMass point guard Chaz Williams, who finished with a game-high 24 points and nine assists. “First play of the game, there was trash talking between both teams, so you know it was a real gritty game. We had to pull up our shirts and lace up our sneakers and go out there and play, and I think we did a great job of that tonight.”
The physicality came with a price, though. Less than two days after beating Boston College in a game that wasn't very much affected by new NCAA rules that are cracking down more than ever before on hand checks and arm bars, the Minutemen ran into an officiating crew that was more than a little bit whistle-happy Tuesday.
In all, 54 combined fouls were called. UMass center Cady Lalanne was limited in the first half after being called for two early ones and LSU's star big man Johnny O'Bryant found himself in foul trouble. Eight players picked up at least four fouls as it left coaches Derek Kellogg and Johnny Jones scrambling for substitutions and new lineups all game long.
“You'd say they did a much better job of getting to the rim, finishing, creating contact to get to the foul line and we probably weren't aggressive enough in driving the ball,” Jones said. “They had guys in foul trouble too and we probably didn't keep them on their heels as often as we possibly needed to. I think the officiating went both ways.”
One of the few players who didn't get caught in foul trouble Tuesday was Putney, who provided a spark when UMass needed him to. The senior finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and a pair of blocks as he stayed out of foul trouble, something that's hampered his ability to provide consistency on the court.
Putney looked very comfortable as he played his game and even provided a highlight with 7:47 left in the first half, when he cleaned up a Sampson Carter missed free throw with a put-back dunk.
“A lot of people keep talking about my foul trouble the years I've been at UMass,” Putney said. “But I tried to not dwell on that, my teammates and coaches just telling me to keep my head up and play solid defense, and I just came out with a vengeance today. Just tried to rebound the basketball a lot more, which I did, and just going out and playing my game and let it come to me and relax.”
“Put was with us the whole way,” Williams said. “And he told us right there and then, like, 'Let's go. I'm here to ride and do whatever it takes for us to win, so we all looked at him and said, 'Let's go,' and he did what he had to do.”
The Minutemen held an eight-point lead with 1:24 remaining in regulation, but, like the theme all game, LSU didn't quit, as they clawed back to make it a three-point game with 22 seconds left after Williams couldn't break the Tigers' press and Andre Stringer scored a breakaway layup.
But despite O'Bryant's monster 23-point, 11-rebound performance and Jordan Mickey's 16 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, LSU just could never break through. Carter made four free throws in the last 14 seconds to clinch the victory, one that completed a grueling two-game start to the season as the Minutemen came away with two quality non-conference wins in less than two days.
“I was a little apprehensive to figure out how it was going to play out when you try to go through your schedule and say, 'Hey, this is a tough stretch,'” Kellogg said. “And I would say that this is about as good as I could have imagined coming out of this as far as not only that we're 2-0, but to see what kind of team we had, that if we passed the look test in my mind. I thought we did in stretches, probably more so today that we played closer to a 40-minute game.
“I was a little nervous about this stretch. Now that this is behind us, I feel very good about our team and very good about the outcome of both games.”