UMass pushes closer to NCAA berth

Although University of Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg won't want to hear a word of it, the Minutemen may well have locked up a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 by beating Rhode Island on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.

But as has been the case so often this season, UMass didn't do it the easy way.

The Minutemen made just three of their first 23 shots and fell into a 13-point hole before roaring back to take a nine-point lead early in the second half. But that advantage didn't hold and UMass trailed 60-56 with 4:46 to play. It was not an unfamiliar situation, as the Minutemen had trailed or been tied in the last five minutes in six of their eight Atlantic 10 wins entering the game.

And they survived another walk on the high wire, coming away with a 70-67 victory.

In his most recent Bubble Watch, ESPN.com's Eammon Brennan classified UMass as "a lock with an asterisk beside it."

"Provided nothing crazy happens Wednesday night against Rhode Island," Brennan wrote, "we'll go ahead and lock the Minutemen up."

Back-to-back wins at George Washington and at home against VCU last week gave their resume some heft, and while there isn't a five-star win -- although knocking off St. Louis (25-2) in the regular-season finale March 9 might qualify -- UMass remains in the top 15 in RPI and its 13-4 record against top-100 RPI teams blows away NCAA candidates who are truly on the bubble.

The Minutemen are in position to do much better than sneak into the Big Dance, however. The most immediate goal is a top-four finish in the A-10, which would put UMass directly into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

That cause was helped Wednesday as Richmond lost at George Mason, leaving UMass alone in third place at 9-4. VCU sits a half-game behind, pending Thursday's game at last-place Fordham. St. Louis has a lock on first place at 12-0, with St. Joseph's in second, a game ahead of the Minutemen at 10-3.

UMass faces a potential landmine Saturday morning at Dayton (11 a.m., ESPNU), always a tough place for visitors. Then comes a game at Duquesne (11-15, 3-10) before the finale against the No. 10 Billikens.

"I think our guys do have a burning desire to win," Kellogg said after the game on the UMass radio broadcast. "I think they're doing a nice job of finding ways to compete and play.

"We'll take the win -- 22-5, 9-4 in the A-10 -- that puts us in a place where we can fight maybe not for first place in the conference but somewhere between two through five."

With the offense out of sync, UMass fell behind 21-8 with 8:01 left in the first half. But the Minutemen outscored the Rams 23-9 the rest of the way behind 3-pointers by Trey Davis (two), Chaz Williams and Sampson Carter.

UMass came out roaring in the second half, with a pair of Raphiael Putney dunks on feeds from Derrick Gordon and a Williams triple helping push the lead to 39-30.

But Rhode Island persistently chipped away, and the Minutemen found themselves again needing to make big plays at the closing minutes.

Gordon made two tough shots down the stretch, the second a lay-in in heavy traffic that gave UMass a 66-64 lead with 1:36 to go.

"I surprise myself at times when I make acrobatic layups like that, but I've talked to [Kellogg] a lot about it and he just tells me, if I miss don't get down on yourself, just keep shooting," Gordon said. "He's giving me the green light."

After Cady Lalanne was called for an illegal screen with 56 seconds to play, the UMass big man forced a travel by Gilvydas Biruta to get the ball back for the Minutemen. Williams was fouled and hit a pair of free throws to make it 68-65 with 25 seconds left. Rhode Island had a chance to tie it, but Sampson Carter knocked the ball loose, and Davis recovered it and hit two more free throws with 3.7 seconds to go to seal it.

"We've got to stop scaring the fans," Gordon said of the Minutemen's penchant for living dangerously. "The games are too close."

UMass backers won't mind the thrills, particularly if there are more to come in March.