Massachusetts almost squandered its highest ranking in nearly 16 years with a lackluster performance in its conference opener. Chaz Williams then bailed out the Minutemen with another strong performance.
Given the result in its last meeting with St. Bonaventure, No. 19 UMass might need more than just a big game from its standout point guard Saturday to defeat a Bonnies club looking to win five in a row for the first time in 12 years.
The Minutemen (13-1, 1-0 Atlantic 10) entered league play with only a five-point setback against Florida State, but were nearly dealt another defeat versus Saint Joseph's on Wednesday. They faced a season-high nine-point deficit with 6:23 remaining before closing the game on an 18-5 run to win 66-62.
Williams scored 22 - his most since a season-high 32 against BYU on Dec. 7 - with eight coming in the final six minutes. Late in the game he also picked up the Hawks' leading scorer, Langston Galloway, helping hold him to 0-for-4 shooting in the final 9:10 after he had started 7 for 10.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg called Williams the best player in the conference. He's averaging a team-best 15.9 points and is one of the nation's leaders in assists with 7.4 per game.
"He, at times, puts us on his back and makes huge plays," Kellogg said. "He did that again tonight. It wasn't surprising for me. I was like, 'These are going in.' When he misses them, I'm surprised."
Williams' performance masked plenty of issues for the Minutemen. They were outrebounded by seven for the second straight game after owning an average margin of plus-5.5 through their first 12 contests. The team's second- and third-leading scorers Cady Lalanne (13.1 ppg) and Sampson Carter (11.6 ppg) combined for only seven points on 2-for-12 shooting. And while Williams was 3 of 5 from 3-point range to improve his percentage to 43.9, the rest of the team combined to go just 2 of 10.
"The will to win in the end was nice, though," Kellogg said. "If you're going to try and do something special, you've got to win some games where you get outrebounded and shoot very poor, I think, from the 3-point line."
A strong showing from Williams wasn't enough to lift UMass in its last matchup with St. Bonaventure on Feb. 20. Williams scored 26 on 9-of-17 shooting to go with 12 assists and four steals in a 99-94 road loss, the Minutemen's fourth defeat in the last six meetings.
The Bonnies made 32 of 33 free throws in the last matchup but 77 of their points came from players no longer on the team.
St. Bonaventure (11-4, 1-0) will have to end a 24-game losing streak against ranked foes to earn its first five-game winning streak since Dec. 8-28, 2001. The program's last victory over a ranked opponent was Jan. 15, 2000, against No. 23 Temple.
The Bonnies needed a late run of their own in their Atlantic 10 opener, giving away a 13-point halftime lead against Richmond on Wednesday before rallying for an 84-70 win. Leading scorer Matthew Wright (16.5 ppg) scored 20 points while center Youssou Ndoye added a career-high 19 to go with 11 rebounds.
"I thought we played a great first half," coach Mark Schmidt said. "In the second half they made that run, they took the lead and in hindsight you look back and we showed some toughness. We took a punch, we didn't fall down, we fought back."
St. Bonaventure hasn't opened conference play with back-to-back wins since starting 4-0 in 1999-2000.