AMHERST — It’s not who starts the game, coaches like to say, it’s who finishes it. That might sound like nothing more than a cheesy sideline motivational tool to make those who are sitting in their warm-ups for the opening tap feel good. But on Saturday afternoon, University of Massachusetts fans saw evidence that the axiom is a truism.
The Minutemen got big boosts from their bench in both halves — with hot-and-cold shooting guard Freddie Riley sizzling before intermission and the inside tandem of Maxie Esho and Cady Lalanne taking charge of the paint afterward — as they closed out their nonconference schedule with a seventh straight victory, running away from Eastern Michigan, 75-61, before a boisterous 5,060 at the Mullins Center.
“We’ll take 10-3, obviously,’’ said coach Derek Kellogg. “I think that’s a great record for the schedule we’ve played out of conference. Now the gauntlet of the Atlantic 10 comes in.’’
Indeed, next stop for the Minutemen is Saint Louis, where they open their A-10 schedule Thursday against an even hotter team, the Billikens, who are riding an eight-game winning streak.
Early on, it appeared that UMass was capable of getting any shot it wanted against Eastern Michigan (7-7), which was coming off a 52-point loss Wednesday at Kentucky. That didn’t mean the Minutemen were capable of making those shots, though.
They came out firing from mostly outside the 3-point arc, and after Jesse Morgan and Chaz Williams each hit one to push UMass ahead, 8-2, that was it for the home team for a while. A 10-2 run by the Eagles put them in front, 12-10.
The good vibe didn’t last for the visitors, thanks to Riley. He nailed a 3-pointer to put UMass back in the lead, and after a timeout, he drilled three more to make it 22-13 before Matt Balkema halted the run with a pair of free throws after an offensive rebound.
What was the UMass answer? Another Riley trey, of course, giving the Minutemen their first double-digit lead, at 25-15. It was the senior’s fifth 3-pointer of the half on seven attempts (he finished 6 of 9, with a game-high 18 points), and it gave him 15 straight UMass points over a stretch of 3 minutes 41 seconds.
“To see Freddie go on a Freddie Riley-esque run was fantastic,’’ said Kellogg.
Williams acknowledged that Riley’s hot hand “tremendously’’ influenced his decision-making at point guard.
“You’ve got to give Freddie the ball when he’s on fire,’’ said Williams. “It’s like he’s got a little red match under his feet and he just keeps scoring. Once he gets his roll going, you gotta keep going to him.’’
Of course, Williams got a little roll going, too, as he usually does. After UMass came out of the locker room at the half riding a 13-point cushion, Eastern Michigan scored the first 5 points to trigger a 15-6 run that made it a 4-point game with 15:33 left. Williams then took charge.
On two straight possessions, he fed Esho (13 points on 6-of-6 shooting, 9 rebounds) for dunks to wake up a crowd that had gone quiet. Williams (14 points, 9 assists, 4 steals, 4 rebounds) then drove the lane for a couple of floaters, and the Minutemen quickly were up by 12.
Another Esho dunk, this one off an offensive rebound, made it a 14-point game, and UMass would not be challenged.
Lalanne played a big part in closing out the game, grabbing big rebounds at both ends and scoring all 7 of his points after intermission. Although neither he nor Esho was on the court at the final horn, they’d in effect finished off the Eagles.
Kellogg liked what he saw from his reserve big men after halftime. He’s reserving judgment on the team overall, though, in terms of what happened in the early going after the break.
“I think if we can figure out how to start off the second halves a little better and start getting that killer instinct in the second half,’’ said the coach, “I think we have a chance to be a pretty good basketball team.’’