Carter an unlikely hero? Not to UMass

AMHERST, Mass. -- With the bulk of its key contributors back from an NIT Final Four season, the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team enters this season with more anticipation and greater expectations than it has in more than a decade.

Yet with 1:21 remaining in its season opener against a Harvard team that lost two of its mainstays during an offseason cheating scandal, the Minutemen trailed by five, their fans bracing for a letdown they’ve felt before in the 14 years since their last NCAA tournament appearance.

So with the game on the line in the closing seconds, UMass turned to -- who else? -- a kid who missed the bulk of last season with a hip injury and hadn’t scored a point all game.

But to hear the Minutemen and coach Derek Kellogg tell it, having Sampson Carter hit a winning 3-pointer with one second to play -- giving UMass a 67-64 victory -- was just how they drew it up.

With game tied at 64 with 28 seconds to play, the Minutemen took possession after Chaz Williams and the UMass pressure defense forced a Harvard turnover along the sideline. Williams let the clock run down before making his move, driving the lane. As Crimson defenders converged, Williams dished the ball to an open Carter in front of the UMass bench, and Carter calmly drained the shot with 1.5 seconds to go.

“Once I saw Chaz go baseline and my man came off, I knew I was getting it because it’s something we work on,” Carter said. “I knew to slide to the corner.”

With time winding down, Carter said he didn’t have to think about whether or not to shoot.

“I heard the bench behind me saying, ‘Knockdown’ so I knew it was a knockdown and I was totally confident.”

Williams, UMass’ slippery point guard, also said he saw it all coming.

“As the play was setting up, I was already looking at the secondary defenders,” Williams said. “I saw Sampson creeping in early, real early. I just knew once I get to the rim if he (the defender on Carter) comes all the way to commit, I was going to pass it out to Sampson and I knew it was going in.”

Kellogg pledged his confidence as the play unfolded as well.

“When Chaz drove, I thought he was going to shoot it,” Kellogg said, “but they converged, they did what they were supposed to do with a point guard who can score like him. They ran five guys to the paint.

“It was funny. When I saw Sampson open, I instantly knew he was going to make that shot. He’s made that shot the last three days in practice every time. So if he didn’t make it, I was going to be thoroughly disappointed.”

At least Harvard coach Tommy Amaker admitted to being surprised by the hero who was unexpected to the rest of us.

“Chaz is an outstanding player. He’s quick, he’s crafty, it’s hard to keep in front of him,” Amaker said. “I was kind of excited honestly when he threw it out because he’s a great finisher at the rim and he’s also crafty enough to get fouled. So I thought it played into our hands.

“But as it turned out, obviously the kid made a big shot. He was in the right spot and Williams can find people.”

Kellogg admitted he had “kind of a weird lineup out there” at the end in response to how Harvard had been matching up, with Carter, Williams, Jesse Morgan, Freddie Riley and Raphiael Putney on the floor, a unit that has seen very little practice time together.

Harvard’s Wesley Saunders hit a pair of free throws to give the Crimson a 64-59 lead, but Jesse Morgan (a game-high 19 points) answered with a jumper in the lane to make it a 3-point game.

UMass, showing defensive intensity that had been lacking much of the second half, forced a five-second violation with 44.9 seconds left, and Morgan tied it with a three-ball with 37 seconds to go.

The Minutemen cranked up their full-court pressure again, and after Williams forced a turnover, hitting the ball off Webster’s foot, saying the ball “went the right way,” Kellogg declined to call timeout, letting the game play out.

“I put it in the players’ hands,” Kellogg said. “I learned that many years ago from the guy I played for, (John Calipari). In those situations, let’s have our stuff already in and we’re going to go and let the guys play.”

He was confident the result would be a good one.

“I think I have one of the best floor generals in the country and the other guys feed off him,” Kellogg said. “If we have the ball in his hands with some semblance of a set or a play, I’m usually confident that he’s going to make a good basketball decision.”

Even if it’s a decision that takes everyone else by surprise.