"I really felt like we blew valuable opportunities against St. Joes and LaSalle," SLU coach Shimmy Gray-Miller said. "We needed to win this game. … You've got to take care of your business. You've got to beat the teams you're supposed to beat and then try to knock off a few that you're not supposed to beat. Especially at home."
Saint Louis improved to 10-15 overall and 5-5 in the Atlantic 10 after winning four games in conference play each of the last two seasons.
"We've really been looking forward to this game," said sophomore Katie Paganelli. "We came off a rough game with LaSalle and we really had to bounce back. We had a rough week of practice. It was really important for us to focus on this game."
Paganelli, a 5-foot-9 guard, led SLU with 21 points on eight-of-12 shooting, including two 3-pointers. She scored 13 points in the second half and helped the Billikens get back on track after a slow start after halftime.
"I thought she was outstanding today," Gray-Miller said. "She took good shots."
Paganelli was joined in double figures by sophomore guard Theresa Lisch, who scored 19 points and made four free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal the victory, and senior forward Heather King added a season-high 12 points.
Pam Rosanio led UMass (11-14, 3-7) with 22 points.
SLU trailed 6-2 early before piecing together a 12-3 run that included points from six different players. The Billikens controlled the tempo for the remainder of the half after shaking off some early shooting struggles.
Saint Louis led 32-25 at halftime, which matched the Billikens' biggest lead of the first 20 minutes. King led all scorers with her 10 points on five-of-eight shooting, while Paganelli had eight and Lisch added seven.
Massachusetts scored the first nine points of the second half as part of a 14-2 run. Rosanio, a 5-10 senior, scored eight of the 14 points, including back-to-back three-point plays.
"I knew that UMass would come out hard and aggressive and fired up in the second half and I challenged my kids at halftime that you have to match their intensity," Gray-Miller said. "And I didn't feel like we matched their intensity. I called a couple of timeouts and let the kids know it. To their credit, they responded."
UMass made six of its seven shots during the run. SLU missed five of six during the same stretch.
"Our main focus at halftime was to keep our intensity and we let it fall a little bit," Paganelli said. "They came out working hard and their intensity picked up. We just had to respond. We did, we responded. And we had to stay poised. Throughout the second part of the second half our biggest responsibility was to stay poised and we did."
It was Paganelli and sophomore center Amanda Kemezys that helped get the Billikens out of their funk.
SLU scored five straight points with a bucket inside by Kemezys, a Paganelli free throw and then a mid-range jumper by Kemezys off an inbounds pass to get the hosts back into the game.
Then Paganelli knocked down a mid-range jumper, a baseline jumper off an inbounds pass and then a pull-up jumper to tie the score at 45-45 with 11 minutes and 3 seconds remaining.
The teams went back and forth from that point, but SLU found a way to make a couple more plays down the stretch.
Senior guard Hayley Leake took a charge on Rosanio with 3:25 left that gave the team a big boost.
Paganelli's drive and basket with 2:08 tied the game at 65-65 and then King's bucket inside with 1:20 left off a feed from Lisch put Saint Louis in front for good.
In the final minute, Lisch took a charge to thwart a UMass series and protect the two-point lead and then the 5-11 King grabbed an offensive rebound with 25 seconds left to help maintain that advantage.
When Lisch made four free throws in the final 18.2 seconds — the Billikens made 10 in a row in the second half and 18 of 22 for the game — it served to seal the squad's fifth Atlantic 10 Conference victory of the season.
After shooting 39.3 percent in the first half (11 of 28), Saint Louis made 52 percent of its shot attempts in the second half (13 of 25) to finish at 45.3 percent for the game (24 of 53).
Gray-Miller said afterward that the Billikens were running a brand new offense.
"I want to give credit to the kids because we just put this in on Wednesday in practice," she said. "I actually got it from (former Ohio State coach) Jim O'Brien. Teams have adjusted to us and taken away our driving lanes. St. Joes and LaSalle both played us a sagging man and we really struggled with that. We couldn't drive, we couldn't get to the hoop."
O'Brien is the father of SLU's administrative assistant Erin Wright. Gray-Miller said the offense fits the strengths of SLU's guards, including leading scorers Lisch and Paganelli, by getting them open looks off of screens.
"I had to call some friends in the business," Gray-Miller said. "Jim O'Brien is a great guy. He's come out and watched our team practice and play. He gave me a great offense to run that he ran at Ohio State. We put that in and that's what we ran the entire game. We ran one set the entire game."
The Billikens, who are still without injured sophomore forward Amy Klotz, will need another strong offensive performance on Wednesday when they travel to Washington D.C. to play A-10 leader George Washington.
But Saturday's victory represented another positive step for the program, which currently features three seniors, one junior, five sophomores and two freshmen and has five players signed for next season.
"We haven't done anything yet," Gray-Miller said. "Every year, every game we win is important. Every year that we grow this program is a step. We want to keep moving forward. We haven't arrived because we beat Charlotte. We haven't arrived now because we've won five games in the conference and the last two years we won four. We haven't arrived yet. It's a process."