NEW YORK — The shot was soaked in enough irony for both Shaka Smart and Derek Kellogg to appreciate.
Virginia Commonwealth had left layups teetering on the rim, unwilling to drop. The Rams’ first four 3-point tries all took paint off the iron.
But they were good shots.
Smart checks after every game to make sure. Every possession gets judged. Each shot gets a grade: Great, good, decent, bad, or no chance.
“We missed a lot of wide-open, easy shots throughout the course of the game,” Smart said.
But pinned in the corner with UMass guard Chaz Williams nipping at him like a pit bull, Rob Brandenberg hit a step-back 3-pointer with the shot clock nearly drained.
“That was one of our worst-shot quality shots of the game,” Smart said. “But he had to take it.”
Brandenberg’s three splashed through, giving the Rams a 7-point lead with 1:21 left and all but sealing their 71-62 win over UMass in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament at the Barclays Center.
“You know what’s crazy?” said Kellogg, who had a painfully clear view of the shot from the other end of the court. “I thought it was in. It was just one of those ones where it was like, ‘This one’s going in. I can’t believe it.’
“I thought Chaz was draped on him and he kind of double-clutched and shot a curve ball, but it looked good.”
A similar shot fell in the Minutemen’s favor Friday night in a quarterfinal win over Temple. If Terrell Vinson hadn’t drilled a three in the final minute with UMass squeezing a 2-point lead, the Minutemen might not have made it to the semifinals.
That shot was just as wild. The shot clock was just as drained.
But Kellogg said, “In my head I was like that one’s in, too.”
It was already clear how slim the margin of error would be for UMass after going to VCU last month, turning the ball over 24 times, and being run out of the Seigel Center by 18.
This time UMass came out nursing the basketball like a newborn.
The Minutemen turned it over just twice in the first eight minutes and led by as many as 9 points midway through the first half when Williams (18 points on 7-of-12 shooting) knocked down a jumper out of a timeout.
Then things went haywire.
One possession, they threw the ball out of bounds over the VCU bench. On another, VCU forced a backcourt violation. On another they couldn’t break VCU’s press in time and were whistled for a 10-second call.
UMass again finished with 24 turnovers against a team that’s 26-0 when it forces at least 15. The Minutemen fed into the kind of chaos that the Rams have made their brand.
Briante Weber made two bang-bang plays that broke UMass’s back.
First, with the Rams up, 60-56, and the big men playing volleyball trying to grab a rebound around UMass’s basket, Weber stood under the rim, facing his own basket, and waited. The rebound tumbled directly to him.
“It was just being at the right spot at the right time,” Weber said.
His eyes were on the basket as soon as the rebound fell. He pushed the ball upcourt, saw a one-on-one with Sampson Carter backpedalling, drove right at him, and got the contact, the layup, and the free throw.
“Go eat the rim, as Coach would say,” Weber explained. “So I just attacked.”
The next possession Weber wrestled the ball from Freddie Riley, coming up with a steal that led to a 3-pointer by Troy Daniels (game-high 20 points, 6 of 9 on threes).
“This guy right here with the headband on, he’s Mr. Havoc,” Daniels said of Weber. “He speeds a lot of guys up. That’s our motto going into the game, our mind-set going into the game.”
The 25th-ranked Rams, who joined the A-10 this season along with Butler, advanced to the conference final (they also won the conference title in their first year in the Sun Belt in 1980 and the Colonial Athletic Association in 1996) and will assuredly make a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Minutemen won two conference tournament games after a 19-win regular season for the second straight year. The uncertainty of their NCAA Tournament accompanied them on the bus ride back to Amherst.
With the team staying in Brooklyn Saturday night, Kellogg did what he could to swing the bracket gods.
“I may set up a lot of candles in the basement and go hang out,’’ he joked.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.