AMHERST — Because they’ve stayed relatively healthy this season, the UMass Minutemen have been able to start the same five players all 19 games. Developing a decent bench, though, could go a long way toward making this year a special one.
A pair of reserves provided a necessary spark Sunday, turning a sloppy, listless start for UMass into its biggest rout of the season. And since it came four days after a loss at Richmond, it guaranteed — emphatically — that there would be no losing streak.
Wednesday’s 3-point setback was the fourth straight conference game for the Minutemen decided by 5 points or fewer, with all three wins requiring second-half comebacks. After Friday’s practice, coach Derek Kellogg pointed to the late-game dramatics and said, “It’s good for a team, once in a while, to just go win a game and not really have to go through all that.”
There was no nail-biting Sunday, with the 13th-ranked Minutemen blowing out Fordham, 90-52, before a sold-out crowd at the Mullins Center. It was the largest margin of victory for UMass since a 37-point win against La Salle on March 5, 2008.
The usual suspects led the way, with Chaz Williams scoring 18 points and Raphiael Putney adding 13. But without Trey Davis and Maxie Esho, UMass (17-2, 4-1 Atlantic 10) might have been in for a much tougher fight. Davis (13 points, nine assists) and Esho (10 points, six rebounds) led the bench charge, with the Minutemen reserves scoring 42 points, almost as many as the starters. All 11 UMass players who saw the floor scored at least 4 points.
“I thought other than the start that was a nice, complete game for us,” Kellogg said. “We’re kind of formulating to get to a point where we have a total, complete team. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re working toward playing more guys, running, and being a little more aggressive on both ends of the floor.”
Maybe the noon start caught the Minutemen off guard, or maybe it was Kellogg keeping them in the locker room until roughly 90 seconds before the tip. Whatever the reason, the strong, fast start sought by UMass after Wednesday’s loss didn’t happen. Fordham scored the first 7 points, with the Minutemen missing four straight shots and turning the ball over four times before the first media timeout.
Enter Esho and Davis. The super subs checked in before the game was three minutes old, and with UMass trailing, 6-0. By the time Esho left with 9:29 remaining in the first half, he had scored 8 points, grabbed four rebounds (two offensive), and forced a turnover, one of 10 Fordham committed in the first half. The appearance of Esho and Davis triggered a 20-2 run.
Esho scored the first 4 UMass points, converting a miss by Davis, then throwing down a one-handed dunk off a pass from Davis 30 seconds later. The duo brought the Minutemen exactly what Kellogg was seeking.
“We were down, 7-0, I couldn’t watch anymore,” Kellogg said. “Maxie will at least bring energy, and I think Trey has proved that he can make open shots, so we needed to mix it up a little bit. That worked out. Maxie had a couple big plays, you’re coming off a loss, you haven’t played in a couple days and it’s a little stagnant. I thought that gave us the energy we needed to at least say, ‘We’re here.’ ”
With his 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, Davis finished 1 point shy of his career high, and his nine assists were a personal best. He also lofted a perfect alley-oop pass late in the game for Seth Berger, one of three such plays by the high-flying Minutemen.
“I was just trying to get them all involved,” Davis said.
UMass stretched the lead to 40-24 by halftime, then left no doubt that the game was in hand by the way it opened the second half. Unlike the beginning of the game, when it took the Minutemen a while to get going, it was a quick, lethal burst, with UMass trapping and pressing, running and scoring, seemingly at will. Three 3-pointers (Putney first, then Sampson Carter, then Williams) and a pair of Putney free throws gave UMass an 11-0 run 100 seconds in. By the time Williams fed Derrick Gordon for a layup, the Minutemen had scored 17 consecutive points to start the second half, stretching the lead to 57-24.
“It’s a coaching cliché, first five minutes of the second half. Every coach in the country talks about it. They come out, boom, 10-0 run. Game over,” said Fordham coach Tom Pecora.
Pecora knows all about how dangerous Williams is; he coached him four years ago at Hofstra, before Williams transferred to UMass. Now, assuming he stays at Fordham, Pecora might have another talented UMass point guard to face in Davis, who’s just a sophomore. Davis and Williams combined for 17 assists and just three turnovers, and helped hold Fordham guards Branden Frazier and Jon Severe, who came in averaging 39 points, to just 19 on 6-of-24 shooting.
This is still Williams’s team. But if Davis can give the Minutemen this kind of production, there won’t be such a big dropoff if and when Williams needs a rest.
UMass needed something else Sunday, a certain characteristic that had been lacking, in Williams’s estimation, for the better part of a month.
“Especially coming off a loss, we wanted to come out and get our swagger back,” said Williams, who moved into 11th place on the school’s career points list, with 1,440. “We weren’t playing UMass basketball and doing what we’re used to doing, so we wanted to come out today, execute [Kellogg’s] game plan, and do what we’re used to doing.”