AMHERST — Friday night provided more than a taste of the halcyon days of the mid-1990s for UMass basketball, with a white-hot Mullins Center atmosphere and a gritty drag-it-through-the-knothole performance against one of college basketball’s premier defensive teams in Virginia Commonwealth.
The Minutemen finally nosed in front with four minutes left and protected their lead to the end in a pulsating 80-75 victory over the Rams before a sellout throng of 9,493 and a national ESPN2 audience. Their backcourt trio of Chaz Williams (20 points), Derrick Gordon (16) and Trey Davis (13) combined for 49 points and the Minutemen prevailed without hitting a 3-point shot, missing all eight of their long-range attempts -- the first time they’d gone without a deep ball in nearly eight years.
Davis’ steal and layup snapped a 68-68 tie with four minutes to go. The sophomore added five rebounds, four steals and two assists and shook off the struggles he’d had controlling the basketball in two losses to VCU last season.
“I’m extremely proud of myself. I didn’t have any turnovers, looking at it now,” said Davis. “I’ve been in the gym and getting positive results, so I’m gonna stay in that gym and keep doing what I’m doing.”
With 90 seconds left, Davis extended UMass’ lead to 74-71 with a jumper in the lane, then added two foul shots with 36 seconds left. The Rams answered with a layup by Treveon Graham and two at the line by Melvin Johnson after a UMass turnover and foul. But the Minutemen were able to inbound to Williams on the next try, forcing a foul and two made free throws for a 78-75 lead.
VCU’s Briante Weber then drove right of the lane, but Williams picked his pocket from behind, coming up with the steal and adding two more free throws with 8.7 seconds to play to seal the victory.
“We did a nice job in practice this week, paying attention to detail and trying to execute the game plan,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “They trap and make you play, we get up and down and make them play, and I thought our guys handled the pressure pretty well.
“When we have nights like this and it goes well, I like to go sit back and chill out by myself, and love that other people are enjoying our success. For me, that’s euphoria, it’s unbelievable.”
Cady Lalanne added 10 points and nine rebounds and Sampson Carter had nine points and a game-high 10 boards for the Minutemen.
UMass improved to 21-5, 8-4 within the Atlantic 10, moving into a fourth-place tie with George Washington. The Minutemen hold the tiebreaker over GW following last weekend’s win over the Colonials in Washington.
Graham led VCU (20-7, 8-4 A-10) with 19 points and eight rebounds, followed by Juvonte Reddic with 13 and nine rebounds, Johnson with 12 and Rob Brandenberg with 10. The Rams had knocked out UMass in the semifinals of the 2013 A-10 postseason tournament.
VCU brought the reputation of its “HAVOC” pressure defense, and UMass struggled at moments against it. But the Minutemen committed only 14 turnovers Friday while forcing 17 from the Rams, turning them into 23 points.
The first 10 minutes seesawed back and forth before a 16-6 run gave VCU its largest lead of the night, 33-24, with 4:19 left in the first half. UMass reeled in the Rams to close to within 36-34 on Carter’s layup with 2:33 to play, but the only scoring from there was Graham’s trey for VCU at the 1:32 mark, putting the Rams ahead 39-34 at the half.
The Minutemen then edged ahead 50-49 at the end of a 6-0 run, getting a basket in traffic by Williams with 13:47 left. JeQuan Lewis answered with a 3-pointer for VCU, but UMass scored the next six with an offensive rebound and jumper by Davis, two at the line by Carter and a Williams layup to lead 56-52
Johnson’s 3-pointer got the Rams started on a 9-0 run and the visitors went up by five on three occasions, the last at 67-62 with just over seven minutes to go. UMass rallied back to lead 68-67 on Gordon’s two foul shots with 4:56 remaining, setting up the final frantic minutes.
“It’s the type of environment that you love to play in as a college basketball player,” said VCU coach Shaka Smart. “UMass did a really good job to scrap out some plays where it got them some extra possessions. It wasn’t lack of effort on our part, but they got to some of them. Their free throws were the difference.”
UMass made 20-of-27 at the line, including 12-of-14 in the second half alone. Williams knocked down all eight of his tries. Meanwhile, the Rams bricked their way to less than 50 percent at 10-of-22.
After an ugly 34-percent showing from the floor in the first half, UMass picked it up to 53 percent after halftime and 43 percent in the game. VCU went the opposite way, dropping from 47 percent to 32 percent half-to-half and winding up at 39 percent.
The Minutemen host Rhode Island (11-16, 2-10 A-10) Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.