AMHERST — “I’d like to see these guys come out,’’ said Derek Kellogg, “and really steamroll somebody pretty soon in the second half.’’
That was the University of Massachusetts coach speaking a week and a half ago following his team’s last home game, which the Minutemen won, but only after scrambling late to compensate for allowing a halftime lead to evaporate.
Wednesday night the Minutemen once again stepped onto their home court, and they brought out a small but effective piece of road-building equipment. It even has a name: Chaz Williams.
The junior point guard scored 17 of his season-high 27 points in the second half and sparked a pair of 10-0 runs — the first right out of the locker room — as UMass, um, steamrolled Rhode Island, 81-53, before a high-spirited 4,124 at the Mullins Center.
In a season of down-to-the-wire finishes for the Minutemen (15-6, 5-3 Atlantic 10) — 11 games decided by 5 points or fewer — this was a rare blowout. It was especially notable against URI, which despite being 6-15 (1-7 in conference) has been in practically every game. The Rams arrived in Amherst having dropped four in a row, but the most recent defeat was by just 7 points at 14th-ranked Butler.
URI hung tough in the first half, fighting back from an 11-0 UMass run behind the offensive punch of Xavier Munford. The junior guard, the second-leading scorer in the A-10, scored 15 of his 22 points before intermission, including a pair of late 3-pointers. The second came at the buzzer and pulled the Rams within 10. In the past, that momentum might have carried over into the second half. But not on Steamroller Night.
“We figured they had a lot of momentum,’’ said Freddie Riley, who opened the second half with a poised turnaround jumper in the lane. “We wanted to come out with a lot of effort, come out the opposite of what we’ve been doing.’’
After a stop at the other end, Terrell Vinson (13 points) hit a baby hook and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but a minute later UMass got a 3-pointer from Williams, then another, and less than 3 minutes into the half, it was a 20-point game.
Munford finally ended the spurt and started one for the Rams, but their 7-point run was not as treacherous for UMass with the lead so big. A Vinson trey and a Cady Lalanne old-fashioned 3-point play kept URI from getting any closer, and Williams led the Minutemen on another 10-0 run with a couple of end-to-end drives, a 3-pointer and a crowd-pleasing alley-oop for a thunderous Lalanne dunk that made it a 23-point game.
“I felt like today was an all-around OK game for me,’’ said Williams, who fell just 2 points shy of his career-high scoring night. “I still feel like I can play better.’’
Hearing his mini-maestro say that put a smile on Kellogg’s face. He enjoyed seeing Williams put the offense on his back at times, but the coach also appreciated the defensive effort by Riley, the work on the defensive boards by Raphiael Putney, and the overall oomph his team displayed, especially during that period that had so bewitched the Minutemen all season.
“The only way you can pull away is if you start the second half kind of like the way we played in the first half,’’ said Kellogg. “And that was the best start to a half that we’ve had all year.’’
Now, after a 28-point victory crafted by this up-tempo offense and lock-down defense he’s built, the coach is calling on another part of the “team’’ to contribute: the UMass student body, which he implored to show up in force for the Minutemen’s next A-10 game, against Saint Joseph’s. On what’s forecast to be a snowed-in Saturday.
“A 2 o’clock game on Saturday on national television,’’ said Kellogg. “Put your snow boots on, put your skis on, and c’mon down.’’