AMHERST — Call it the turning point. You get it? Point?
You had to figure it was going to come down to the point guard play, since the engine that drives the University of Massachusetts is junior Chaz Williams and Ohio University goes only as far as senior D.J. Cooper leads the way. Cooper came into Wednesday night’s game at the Mullins Center ranked seventh in the nation in assists, at 7.1, and Williams was right behind at 7.0, for eighth place.
The question was: Which guard would point his team in the right direction?
Neither playing the point, it turned out. Cooper’s sour temper actually cost his team early momentum, a careless first-half technical launching the then-dormant Minutemen on a 23-1 run that turned a 12-point deficit into a double-digit lead. Williams (9 points, 7 assists), like his counterpart, struggled a bit, too. But his partner in the UMass backcourt sure didn’t.
Jesse Morgan, who came into the game on a cold streak (35 percent shooting for the season after a 1-for-9 performance on Saturday), heated up in a hurry and continued to sizzle all night. He hit four 3-pointers during the game-changing first-half run and added three more key ones after intermission to propel UMass (6-3) to an 85-76 victory over Ohio (7-4) before an appreciative 3,821.
Morgan has been known to use positive visualization to sharpen his shooter’s eye. But even he didn’t envision what happened. “I didn’t visualize this,’’ he said, referring to a career-high 35-point night on 12-of-18 shooting overall, 7 of 10 from downtown. “I visualized that I was going to play defense and play well.’’
His visions came true on that count, as he hounded Cooper all night on the defensive end. The Ohio court general had 23 points and 10 assists, but he had to work for everything he got.
As for Morgan, he made it look easy on offense, firing away from far beyond the arc to show off what he called his “in-the-gym range.’’ Not that he was taking it in as it happened. “After a while I just black out. Shots just fall.’’
If Morgan was Mr. Oustide, Cady Lalanne was Mr. Inside. One game removed from a suspension following his Dec. 1 disorderly conduct arrest at an on-campus event, the 6-foot-9-inch sophomore center asserted himself with feisty work on the boards at both ends. After Ohio had pulled back from 8 down at halftime to tie the game, and Morgan’s sharpshooting then had put UMass back in front, Lalanne made a couple of strong, willful plays in the offensive paint that built the Minutemen’s edge back to double digits. He finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, five on the offensive glass.
The point guards did start off showing their stuff, with Williams feeding Sampson Carter for a fast-break dunk less than 10 seconds into the game, then Cooper answering by sending Jon Smith down the lane for a tying dunk.
The Minutemen then lost their way, while the Bobcats found their range from as far away as they could heave it, riding 3-pointers by Walter Offutt, Cooper, and Nick Kellogg to a 9-point lead less than 3½ minutes into the game. Coach Derek Kellogg called time.
The break didn’t breathe any life into UMass, as the offensive flow produced no easy baskets, the shots weren’t falling, and the defense allowed transition baskets and another three by Offutt to make it an 18-6 game.
The only thing that could stop Ohio was Ohio. After a couple of Carter free throws pulled the Minutemen within 10, Cooper was whistled for traveling on a drive, objected to the call, and tossed the ball to the side of the court. Bad form. Another whistle and a T sign by the referee sent Morgan to the line, he made one of two, and on the ensuing possession he nailed a 3-pointer.
He was only getting started. Over the next four minutes, Morgan would add another trey, a coast-to-coast layup, three freebies after being fouled beyond the arc, and, finally, a 3-pointer that could have counted for 4 it was shot from so far away from the hoop. When Ohio’s first-year coach, Jim Christian, called time, his team trailed by 10, at 29-19, after a 23-1 run by the Minutemen.