AMHERST — There’s no question about their considerable entertainment value through the first two games of the basketball season — now the UMass Minutemen’s effectiveness and level of play seemingly don’t have far to catch up.
The Minutemen and Louisiana State pushed a breakneck pace throughout Tuesday’s home opener at the Mullins Center, the scoring hardly impacted by 1.35 fouls called per minute of game action. LSU knocked a 13-point second-half deficit down to one on three separate occasions, but UMass never lost the lead, closing out the Tigers in the final seconds, 92-90, before a matinee crowd of 5,182.
Chaz Williams scored a game-high 24 points with nine assists to lead the Minutemen (2-0), including 10-of-14 at the foul line. Sampson Carter, facing his hometown team, went one better at the stripe with an 11-of-15 day among his 17 points. Cady Lalanne added 16 points, all coming in the second half, and six rebounds before fouling out late, and Raphiael Putney finished with 14 points and a team-high nine boards. Derrick Gordon and Trey Davis each contributed eight.
UMass had its hands full with the Tigers’ 6-9, 256-pound forward Johnny O’Bryant III, who cleaned up underneath with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Andre Stringer was right behind with 21 points for LSU (0-1) and freshmen Jordan Mickey (10 rebounds) and Anthony Hickey each finished with 16.
“We played well, and we showed we’re a little more mature than we’ve been in years past when teams make a run at us,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “92-90, I think that’s what the fans like to see, and I believe our guys like to play that way.”
A total of 54 fouls were called, 33 coming in the first half alone — 19 on LSU and 14 against the Minutemen. That led to a 28-of-40 showing at the free-throw line for UMass, compared to the Tigers’ 15-of-25, and that 13-point edge proved all-important in a two-point game.
“It was very physical, very intense,” said Williams. “The first play of the game, there was trash-talking between both teams. It was a really gritty game. We had to pull up our shirts and lace our sneakers and go out and play, and I think we did a great job.”
UMass trailed only once Tuesday — 3-0 less than 90 seconds in on a trey by LSU freshman Tim Quarterman — and broke a 12-12 tie to take the lead for good. The Tigers committed their 10th team foul with 10:02 left in the half, putting UMass at the line for two shots from that point forward.
The Minutemen ran out to a 10-point lead at 28-18 before LSU rallied to get within one point twice in the final minute. Williams’ 3-pointer with five seconds left bumped the lead to four points at the half, 49-45, and gave the senior a game-high 17 points through the first 20 minutes.
Putney then opened the second half with a trey of his own to start an 11-2 run, giving UMass a 60-47 edge, its largest, three minutes into the second half. O’Bryant picked up his fourth foul with 131⁄2 minutes to go and went to the bench, but the Tigers closed the gap quickly in his absence. Hickey hit a 3-pointer to pull the visitors to within 73-72 with 10:14 to play.
The teams alternated a pair of baskets each before UMass extended a 77-76 lead with six straight points, a free throw by Carter, a 3-pointer by Davis and a tip-in by Lalanne. During that stretch, however, Williams and Lalanne were each whistled for a fourth personal foul, and Lalanne eventually fouled out with 2:15 left.
In that sequence, UMass’ Gordon and LSU’s O’Bryant each dove over press row in pursuit of a loose ball, wiping out a few spectators and student radio broadcasters before landing in a heap in front of the first row of floor seats. Neither player was injured.
UMass still led 88-80 with 1:24 to go before LSU dialed up the pressure, forcing three quick turnovers and scoring five in a row. Carter’s two foul shots with 14 seconds made it a 90-85 game.
After an inside basket by O’Bryant, Carter stepped to the line for two more makes, and that five-point lead held up until Hickey’s 3-pointer at the final horn.
“Coming into the game, we respected them. We knew they were a Top 25-type team,” said Carter, a Baton Rouge resident. “We had to minimize our mistakes. We knew they were a good team and they can capitalize.
“I came out a little too fired up at the beginning, and I had to settle myself down. I can’t even explain the feeling of playing against them. I never thought I’d even get the chance to play against them in my career here — at home, and get the win, on ESPN.”
Tuesday’s game was slotted into the 11 a.m. start time in the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, the second year in a row the Minutemen had played a morning matinee on national television. Last November, Carter dropped the winning 3-pointer at the buzzer as UMass edged out Harvard, 67-64.
“I was a little apprehensive how it was going to play out,” said Kellogg, recapping the quick turnaround from Sunday’s season-opening win against Boston College at the TD Garden to Tuesday morning’s tip-off. “I would say this is about as good as I could have imagined, not only that we’re 2-0, but I wanted to see what kind of team we had, and if we passed the look test in my mind.”
UMass hosts Youngstown State Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Mullins Center.