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UMass 72, Saint Louis 59

Minutemen’s victory is a real crowd-pleaser

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2012
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AMHERST - The Saint Louis University basketball team walked into the Mullins Center yesterday afternoon with the self-assured aura of home-wreckers.

Three nights earlier, the Billikens had ended the longest home winning streak in Atlantic 10 history, handing Xavier the first conference loss on its floor in 43 games. Now they were coming after the University of Massachusetts and its 10-0 record at home.

Make that 11-0.

The Minutemen were too fast, too aggressive, too sharp-shooting for their visitors as they built a 19-point halftime lead and held on for a 72-59 victory before a boisterous 8,399.

Indeed, many of those fans were still in the building for a courtside radio interview with UMass coach Derek Kellogg, which was broadcast over the public address system. He was asked how his Minutemen, who are tied atop the A-10 standings, had gotten the job done. “Eighty-four hundred, that’s how we did it,’’ Kellogg said to the hundredth roar of the day. “Eighty-four hundred!’’

The crowd, the biggest at UMass since 2007, filled the Mullins Center with electricity, and the Minutemen (16-5, 5-2) plugged into it. The game was tight for about half of the opening 20 minutes, although the up-tempo offense and pressure defense of UMass took more plodding Saint Louis (16-5, 4-3) out of its game. Still, with a little less than seven minutes to go before halftime, the Billikens trailed by just 4.

Then a pair of UMass sophomores took over. Chaz Williams (19 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds) left a defender in the dust on a drive, and Raphiael Putney (career-high 22 points, career-high-tying 10 rebounds, 5 steals) nailed a 3-pointer to make it 32-23. Two minutes later, it was Putney on a drive, then Williams with a shot in the lane to make it a 12-point game. With a little more than two minutes left, Putney drove baseline for 2, then took a Williams feed for a three, and it was 41-26. Williams was fouled on a missed 3-pointer and hit 2 of 3, then hit another basket, and it was 45-26 at the half.

UMass shot 66 percent for the half, including 5 of 7 from behind the 3-point arc. Saint Louis shot 32 percent.

“We didn’t shoot well, but you can always defend,’’ said Billikens coach Rick Majerus. “UMass played with attitude, energy, and effort. We played in the afterglow of a nice victory.’’

Kellogg, as you might expect, had a different take on what he’d just witnessed. “We were as sharp as we’ve been all year,’’ he said. “I’m really happy and proud of our team. I thought they really battled, even when Saint Louis was making a big run in the second half.’’

Oh, yeah, the game was not quite finished after that lopsided opening half. When the teams returned to the court following intermission, it was almost as though the Billikens and Minutemen had swapped uniforms. Saint Louis was energized, UMass tentative.

Cody Ellis was the initial spark, hitting a 3-pointter, then nailing another while being fouled. He completed the 4-point play and it was 49-37 with 14 minutes to go. It took nearly three more minutes for the Billikens to cut the deficit to single digits, which happened when Mike McCall hit his only basket of the game.

Saint Louis pulled as close as 5, when Jordair Jett (13 points) hit a jumper from the corner with 5:30 left. UMass called a timeout, and the building was quiet.

Not for long. Williams got a rise out of the fans when, with the shot clock ready to expire, he was fouled while firing up a desperation 3-pointer. He didn’t make that shot, but he did sink all three free throws to give the Minutemen a bit of a cushion with less than five minutes left.

They needed it. The Billikens still had some life, especially when Brian Conklin (17 points) had the ball inside. But they had no answer for Williams, who helped set up a crowd-rousing Sean Carter dunk and hit four more freebies, as the Minutemen pulled away.

“It brought back memories,’’ said Kellogg, a point guard for the Minutemen during the glory days of the early ’90s. “This is the first time in a long time we’ve taken advantage of a big crowd. You get a nice boost.’’

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