The saying that basketball is a game of runs has never rung more true than for the 2011-12 Massachusetts men's basketball team.
All season long, and especially late in the season, the Minutemen have had to erase huge deficits in order to stand a chance to win games. Late in the regular season, UMass overcame a 10-point deficit at Temple with just a few minutes remaining in regulation to force overtime, but couldn't come out on top as the Owls bested them.
In the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament, the Minutemen nearly erased a 16-point deficit with less than eight minutes left against St. Bonaventure, but ultimately lost by four.
But on Tuesday, UMass finally broke through. Trailing by 17 with 17:26 remaining in regulation, the Minutemen put together a comeback for the ages, culminating in a 72-70 victory over Drexel and a berth into next Tuesday's NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
"I'm proud of the team and that we never caved in," said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. "I thought they did an amazing job in the second half of persevering with a lineup that was really non-starters … we're excited to go to New York City."
Back-to-back dunks by Maxie Esho in the span of 15 seconds sparked the rally for the Minutemen, who went on to go on a 26-7 run. After not making one 3-pointer in the first half and only attempting two, UMass converted on two during its run, including a pull up 3 from Jesse Morgan on a fast break that gave the Minutemen their first lead of the game at 62-60 with 7:18 to play.
But the story of the second half was Terrell Vinson. The junior scored 14 points alone in the second half, making clutch bucket after bucket as he took over the game and took advantage of Drexel forward Samme Givens being on the bench with four fouls.
"I noticed in the first half the paint was clogged up a lot and I noticed in the second half that it wasn't," said UMass guard Chaz Williams. "It was more spaced out … we were able to exploit matchups with ‘T.V.' towards the end and he once again came up clutch for us."
Williams' jumper with 3:37 remaining put UMass ahead 70-64, but the Dragons weren't through. Back-to-back layups from Derrick Thomas and Frantz Massenat made it a 70-68 game with less than two minutes left. Williams then dished it to Sean Carter on the ensuing possession, who made a layup of his own to make it 72-68.
Massenat made a pair of free throws to make it a one-possession game, and Drexel sent Williams to the line for free throws with 23 seconds left. But the sophomore misfired on the front end of a one-and-one, allowing the Dragons one final chance to tie or claim victory.
Massenat then drove the lane, but missed a floater with five seconds left. The rebound was tipped out to midcourt and a desperation 3-pointer from there was off the mark as UMass burst into celebration.
"We're just starting to play [a high] level of basketball over the last month or three weeks," said Kellogg. "Guys have finally matured, we're learning how to close out games and then we're learning how to win on the road. It's just guys maturing and getting better."
It was truly a tale of two halves in this one. Drexel used a heavy inside game to get an early advantage as it jumped out to a 9-0 lead. By the end of the first half, the Dragons had more offensive rebounds (12) than the Minutemen had total rebounds (10).
Even forward Dartaye Ruffin came off the bench to torch UMass in the post. He scored 17 points alone in the first half on 8-for-9 shooting as Drexel slowed the tempo and kept the game in the half court just the way it has done all season long, much to the dismay of the Minutemen's up-tempo style.
But UMass finally broke through, as it started making defensive stops and getting out in transition. The result was a huge run to take a lead that Drexel couldn't recover from, as the Minutemen handed the Dragons their first home loss of the season and snapped an 18-game home winning streak dating back to last year.
Williams led all scorers with 20 points, while Vinson added 18 and Morgan chipped in 13. UMass will now face either Stanford or Nevada next Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt and @steve_hewitt.