KINGSTON, R.I. — As Rhode Island guard T.J. Buchanan picked up the loose ball and raced the other way, the Ryan Center shrieked with excitement.
Point guard Chaz Williams had 21 points in UMass' 73-68 win over Rhode Island/Cade Belisle of the Daily Collegian
Seconds later, silence.
With less than a minute to play, Buchanan's steal and ensuing 2-on-0 breakaway was presumably going to cut the Rams' three-point deficit to one.
But Raphiael Putney had other plans. Buchanan never saw the lanky 6-foot-9 UMass forward trailing behind him, and he paid the price. Putney chased Buchanan down, perfectly timed his layup attempt and blocked it with his left hand as he sent the guard crashing to the floor.
“It was a close game, so I couldn't let them have that free layup,” Putney said. “I had to do everything I could, so I sprinted as hard as I could. I'm known for blocking shots on the chase-down, so I just got it. It was a great block by me, and it saved us.”
It was the biggest play of another game in which the Minutemen needed big plays to prevail. UMass trailed by seven with 8:35 to play but came back to win 73-68 over the Rams in front of 6,511 at the Ryan Center on Sunday.
E.C. Matthews cut the UMass lead to 70-68 on a second-chance 3-pointer with 15.9 seconds left, but Trey Davis made two pressure-cooking free throws on the other end to make it a two-possession game again.
Matthews' runner on the next possession went in, but Gilvydas Biruta touched the net in anticipation of a putback and the officials ruled goaltending, sealing the Rams' fate.
Chaz Williams led the Minutemen (19-4, 6-3 Atlantic 10) with 21 points and seven assists, and he made his biggest plays when they mattered the most. The senior scored 11 of his 21 as part of UMass' game-ending 18-6 run, and took complete control down the stretch.
Williams accounted for all of the points in an 11-3 UMass run that gave his team the lead, including a no-look, behind-the-head assist to Maxie Esho – who returned Sunday after missing Wednesday's game against La Salle with concussion-like symptoms – who dunked it with 5:11 left to make it a two-point game.
Williams gave the Minutemen a 66-65 lead on a jumper with 3:31 left, then drew a charge on URI guard Xavier Munford on the next possession. After sluggish moments throughout the game, the momentum was finally – and firmly – in UMass' control.
“He's a heck of a player,” URI coach Danny Hurley said of Williams. “There's a reason why he's a player of the year candidate and one of the best point guards in the country. He was outstanding late. He does what point guards do late in games. He just made so many plays.”
UMass won despite letting the Rams' dynamic backcourt of Munford and Matthews get hot. The duo combined for 22 of the Rams' first 27 points out of the halftime break, including seven in a row at one point from Matthews.
Munford made all three of his free-throw attempts after getting fouled taking a 3-pointer to make it a 62-55 game with 8:35 left. But that's about all the Rams (11-13, 2-7 A-10) could muster on offense the rest of the way.
The Minutemen stymied them over the last 8:35, holding them to just six points and two field goals to take control.
“I thought we just did a better job of locking up,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “Getting on their guys and making it really hard on them. We did a better job on E.C. and Munford during that stretch on making it harder for them to catch. Their offense was starting out a little further than I thought they would like and I have to give credit to our pressure on the perimeter.”
Derrick Gordon and Putney each chipped in 11 points for UMass, which recorded a season-high 10 blocks in the game. Cady Lalanne had three of those, but was otherwise ineffective despite getting consistent looks inside all game, especially in the first half with Birutas sitting on the URI bench with two early fouls.. Lalanne finished with just six points on 2-of-7 shooting and 2-of-7 from the free-throw line while grabbing eight rebounds.