Chaz rallies UMass past URI in A-10 tourney

Chaz Williams celebrates after sinking a clutch 3-pointer down the stretch against Rhode Island. Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- The Massachusetts Minutemen always seem to thrive when their chips are down, when their backs are against the wall.

It's almost as if they enjoy putting themselves in the most precarious situations possible.

"That's not how I'm coaching," Derek Kellogg joked.

No matter.

Despite struggling to make shots and trailing by as many as 11 in the second half, sixth-seeded UMass buckled down in crunch time and came away with a 65-61 victory over 11th-seeded Rhode Island on Thursday night at Barclays Center to advance to the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

One down. Three to go.

"I do think we were a little out of sorts in the first half, a lot of things weren't going our way," said Kellogg, whose team missed eight of its first nine shots and connected on just 27.6 percent of its field goal attempts in the opening 20 minutes.

"We kinda started playing a little selfish. But these guys are older, they're more mature. We had a good halftime 'powwow' and they came out and played hard in the second half and competed at a high level. It's a testament to their makeup."

Chaz Williams, playing in front of several friends and family in his native Brooklyn, shot just 3-for-12 from the field. But he scored seven of his 11 points in the final 2 minutes and 25 seconds. The senior point guard snapped a 56-all tie by making a pair of free throws, and he drained his only 3-pointer of the game with 1:52 remaining, giving the Minutemen a 61-56 lead.

"My teammates just kept faith in me," said Williams, who picked up his fourth foul with 5:29 left. "They kept telling me to be aggressive. Whenever I would miss, they would tell me the next shot was going in. I was just playing with confidence down the stretch. I felt like I hadn't done enough this game for my team, and I didn't want to let those guys down."

UMass used a 10-0 run to take a 56-55 lead prior to their emotional leader's heroics. Williams was fired up after his 3-pointer went down. So was the crowd.

Their team, which plays so hard, had gone ahead to stay.

"I was waiting for that," Kellogg said of Williams' triple, his lone make in six attempts from beyond the arc. "He's made so many of those over his career. When he raised up, I basically knew it was in."

The Minutemen turned it up a notch on the defensive end in the second half, holding the Rams to just one field goal over the final 9:50. Rhode Island had shot 60.9 percent in the first half. Rams senior guard Xavier Munford hit his first six shots, but finished 9-for-16 from the field.

"Our defense was fantastic down the stretch," Kellogg said. "Rhode Island played us tooth and nail to the end, and I thought our guys made some big plays."

UMass (24-7), which got 15 points and seven rebounds from reserve Maxie Esho, finished 3-0 against Rhode Island (14-18) this season, winning those three games by a combined 12 points.

Next up? A battle with third-seeded George Washington (23-7) on Friday night. The Minutemen defeated the Colonials 67-61 on Feb. 15. George Washington is expected to have its second-leading scorer, sophomore guard Kethan Savage, in the lineup. Savage has been out since Jan. 18 with a broken foot.

"They're an NCAA tournament team that's improved as the year has gone on," Kellogg said. "We'll have to be ready for their 1-3-1 [zone] and their man-to-man defense. That's their staple. I thought we did a good job against it down there, but we don't have a ton of time to prepare, so we'll have to see if our guys remember how to attack it."