AMHERST, Mass. -- He is the X factor.
Right in the middle of his name, X marks the spot.
The 6-foot, 8-inch redshirt junior came up with the play of the game Wednesday night -- a stunning steal and dunk with one minute to go that sparked the 19th-ranked University of Massachusetts to a 66-62 victory over Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 opener for both teams. It was a game that, for the longest time, the Minutemen appeared to have no business winning.
Trailing 62-61 with 1:16 left, UMass turned to Derrick Gordon for a jump shot that was blocked by St. Joe’s DeAndre Bembry. The Hawks grappled for possession of the ball, and Bembry, a 6-6 freshman who had played a sparkling game, worked it toward the frontcourt. The gangly Esho saw an opening, poked the ball away with a long arm and galloped toward the hoop. He drew the ball back over his right shoulder in midflight and thundered it home for a two-handed dunk and a 63-62 lead with 1:01 remaining.
Esho said that Bembry was just “rocking with it, playing with the ball, trying to go by me.”
UMass then closed the game in fine fashion in the final minute. A swarming defense that forced 17 turnovers pressured the Hawks into a tough 3-point bid by Langston Galloway that caromed off the front rim. Trey Davis smothered the rebound and got fouled with 37 seconds left. The sophomore guard calmly drained both free throws for a 65-62 lead.
The Minutemen maintained great defensive pressure on the ensuing possession, forcing two timeouts by St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli. Chaz Williams absolutely hounded the Hawks’ best shooter, Galloway, denying him anything close to a good look. The ball finally went out to Papa Ndao, a 6-8 forward who forced up a wayward 3 with five seconds left.
Davis again corralled the rebound, got fouled and hit 1 of 2 free throws to ice the contest.
UMass (13-1) closed on an 18-5 run over the final six minutes that had coach Derek Kellogg breathing a sigh of relief.
“We’re fortunate to come away with a win,” he said. “The will to win at the end was nice. When you’re going to try to do something special, you’ve got to win some games where things don’t go perfect.”
UMass was outrebounded 35-28. The Minutemen got very little from their frontcourt starters. They sent up some air balls from 3-point land that didn’t appear to wind up much closer to the rim than at the point of launch. And with six minutes to go, they seemed to be cooked, down 57-48.
The Hawks had dominated to that point. Galloway (18 points) was silky smooth. Halil Kanacevic, a one-time teammate of Williams at Hofstra before both players transferred, confounded UMass with a series of inside moves, good enough for 19 points and 13 rebounds. (Kellogg said, “He gets under your skin because he’s very good and he’s got the tricks. He’s got all the up-and-unders, your shoe’s untied, grab your shorts. He’s an old-school, very good player.”) And Bembry was superb, with 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
When things looked bleak, Davis and Esho -- both players who come off the bench -- turned to each other.
“I told him, ‘We’ve got six minutes,’” Davis reported. “He said, ‘Let’s turn it up.’ That’s what we did.”
They did so with some huge help, of course, from Williams, who led all scorers with 22 points. He hit a couple of big 3s during that stretch.
“Those are the plays we’ve grown accustomed to from a guy who is, I think, the best player in our conference,” Kellogg said. “At times, he puts our team on his back and makes huge plays. He did that again tonight.”
Williams, though, particularly delighted in the play of Esho (12 points on 6-of-7 shooting).
“Last year, it was hard for him to accept the role,” Williams said. “He was so anxious to be a starter. We had long talks, him being my roommate. [Ultimately,] he accepted the role of being the energy guy, coming into the game and giving us huge minutes. That’s what he did tonight. He knows that when the game is down and the team is lacking energy, it’s up to him to bring it.”
The steal, Williams said, was no surprise, admitting that Esho had recently picked his pocket in practice. Before the game, Williams told Esho, “If you can check me, you can check anybody on the floor.”
For St. Joe’s, the loss was a galling one. The 9-5 Hawks had won five in a row coming in. And even with an injury that confined starting forward Ronald Roberts to just 22 minutes, the Hawks seemed poised for the upset.
“It was a big-boy game," Martelli said, “and we weren’t big enough.”