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UMass 78, Fordham 76

UMass account? It’s in the bank

Harris’s jumper defeats Fordham

By Marty Dobrow
Globe Correspondent / January 7, 2010

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AMHERST - Competing for an Atlantic 10 championship would be, for the young University of Massachusetts team, a giant leap.

Last night’s 78-76 win over Fordham, though, was perhaps one small step for Minutemankind. One very small step.

In the A-10 opener for both teams, the Minutemen (7-7) needed a 14-foot, inadvertent bank shot by senior Ricky Harris with three seconds left to avert disaster against a Fordham that is 2-11 (on the heels of a 3-25 season).

UMass had seemed to be in control with a 13-point lead midway through the second half, but let its intensity slip down the stretch. Still, the Minutemen looked to be home free with a 76-71 lead after Harris hit one of two free throws with 49 seconds left.

But the Rams came roaring back when Chris Gaston hit a tough, spinning shot in the lane and got fouled. He missed the free throw, but the Rams tapped the rebound back to a sizzling Brenton Butler (game-high 31 points), who nailed the tying 3-pointer from beyond the key.

UMass coach Derek Kellogg eschewed the timeout as the Minutemen held for one shot. Harris, who scored a team-high 21 points (16 after intermission), got some separation from Lance Brown and leaned into a jumper from just right of the foul line. It smacked off the glass and through the hoop for a 78-76 lead.

Harris admitted with an embarrassed smile that he was not looking to bank the ball.

“Basically, I just wanted to get the ball,’’ he said. “I found a way to get open and hit a tough shot.’’

UMass got some inspired play from junior Hashim “Big City’’ Bailey. The 6-foot-10-inch, 275-pound junior scored 9 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in just 14 minutes. Other than Harris’s game-winner, he came up with the night’s signature play, diving on the parquet floor with a seismic thud for an offensive rebound, and flipping it back to Freddie Riley, who hit a 3-pointer to put UMass up by 6 with 5:21 left.

Kellogg described Bailey’s contributions as “huge,’’ and added, “Imagine if he got in shape.’’

The Minutemen also got continued good play from Anthony Gurley, who scored 15 points, and got some solid combination play off the bench from long-limbed Sampson Carter, with 8 points and 7 rebounds.

It was barely enough against a Fordham squad that has been Team Turmoil in the early going. Five games into the season, the Rams had their top player, Jio Fontan, quit, while coach Dereck Whittenburg was fired. In his place, Jared Grasso took over. At 29, he is the youngest head coach in Division 1. The Rams typically start three freshmen. They had lost five games in a row coming into this one.

Still, they played with tenacity and poise for most of the night. Butler was superb, shooting 12 of 23, including 6 of 11 from 3-point land. He added 6 assists.

Were it not for abysmal 3-for-11 shooting from the line, the Rams might well have pulled the upset.

UMass will now exhale and set its sights on Sunday’s game in Springfield against La Salle.