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UMass 86, Towson 56

UMass right at home

Minutemen cruise at Mullins Center

DEREK KELLOGG Good bounceback game DEREK KELLOGG Good bounceback game
By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2011
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AMHERST - Home sweet home.

That might not be a typical sentiment for a traveling party that’s just gotten away from New England’s late-autumn chill for a visit to the sunny Bahamas. But the University of Massachusetts basketball team clearly was glad to be back in its house.

The Minutemen had packed their bags last week as an unbeaten team coming off an explosive 36-point win at Boston College. But three games in three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament left UMass with a pair of losses and a Battle-weary feeling.

The feel-good remedy: an evening at the Mullins Center with an 0-5 visitor.

UMass made the most of its home cooking, feasting on Towson for an 86-56 victory before an appreciative 2,579 last night.

A 30-point win is about as easy as they come, but the game did present some peril for the Minutemen (6-2). For one thing, Towson (0-6) didn’t appear to be your run-of-the-mill winless team. The Tigers have played a rugged schedule. Their first two losses came at No. 15 Kansas and No. 14 Michigan, and two others were against teams (Belmont, Oregon State) in the top 100 of the national RPI rankings.

But of more concern for UMass followers was this: Chaz Williams, the redshirt sophomore point guard who has led the Minutemen in scoring and been the engine that’s propelled coach Derek Kellogg’s up-tempo offense, and high-energy junior shooting guard Freddie Riley were not in the starting lineup.

“I wanted to shake some things up from the Bahamas,’’ said Kellogg, brushing aside a question of whether Williams and Riley were being disciplined. “I wanted them to know they could play better and give more effort.’’

The shakeup didn’t last long. Williams and Riley entered before the game was 5 minutes old, and both made an immediate impact. Riley had two straight dunks, the first off a steal, to put UMass ahead by 7. Then, after Towson’s Robert Nwankwo scored off one of his eight first-half offensive rebounds, Williams fed Sean Carter with an alley-oop that turned into a dunk. It triggered a 14-0 UMass run that featured a couple more of Williams’s 8 assists.

Nwankwo, a senior starting alongside three freshmen and a sophomore who wilted under UMass’ full-court pressure, was the only thing keeping Towson afloat. He was a man underneath at both ends of the court, with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Most of that production came in the first half, which ended with UMass ahead, 44-28.

The Minutemen came out of the locker room and didn’t ease up a bit. They continued to press from baseline to baseline, forcing the young Tigers into 26 turnovers. UMass also kept firing up - and making - 3-pointers (13 of 28), led by Riley (3 of 5), who had a team-leading 15 points. His trey with 9:52 left made it a 30-point game.

“I thought UMass was the most athletic and deepest team we’ve played this year, which obviously is saying a lot,’’ said first-year Towson coach Pat Skerry, a onetime head coach at Curry College who also has made several stops in New England as an assistant (Tufts, Northeastern, Rhode Island, Providence).

“A good bounceback game,’’ is the way Kellogg described his 100th outing as UMass coach.

And a message to his team sent . . . and received?

“I’ve tried to sell these guys on there being 10 or 11 starters,’’ said Kellogg.

He paused, then smiled and added, “I’m not sure if these kids buy it, but that’s what I’m going with.’’

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