AMHERST -- For all of the early-season offensive fireworks by the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team, it was a defensive play that gave the 19th-ranked Minutemen their first Atlantic 10 Conference win of the season.
Maxie Esho stole the ball from DeAndre' Bembry with 1:01 left in the game as the Minutemen rallied from a nine-point deficit in the second half to beat Saint Joseph's 66-62 on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.
"He knows when the game is down and the team is lacking energy, it's up to him to bring it," said UMass guard Chaz Williams, who had a game-high 22 points. "He did that tonight."
The Minutemen trailed 31-28 at halftime, but went up by as many as six points early in the second half. The visiting Hawks came roaring back to take a 57-48 lead on a hook shot in the lane by Halil Kanacevic. From that point, the Minutemen outscored the Hawks 18-5 over the last 6:24 to extend their winning streak to three games.
"We were fortunate to come away with a win," said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. "Saint Joe's did some very good stuff. We're happy to come away with a win.
"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."
The Hawks (9-5, 0-1) had three players in double figures against the nationally-ranked Minutemen (13-1, 1-0). Kanacevic, who was a teammate of Williams' at Hofstra before both players transferred, led Saint Joseph's with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
"It was a big boy game," said Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, whose team had its five-game winning streak snapped, "and we weren't big enough for the game."
Esho's big steal and dunk came as the Minutemen closed in on win No. 13. The Hawks went up 62-59 when Langston Galloway (18 points) made 1 of 2 from the foul line with 2:09 left. Esho got the rebound and Williams finished on a drive to the basket, cutting the Hawks' lead to 62-61.
Bembry, who committed four turnovers in the game, got his pocket picked by Esho just above the 3-point arc and the UMass forward took one step and jammed the ball home. That set the crowd of 4,621 on fire.
And the play wasn't very surprising, at least not according to Williams.
"Me and him play one-on-one a lot, and I tell him if he can check me, he can check anyone on the floor," said Williams. "When he got that steal, I knew it was something he can do because, I don't want to tell you guys, but he picked me the other day in practice."
Galloway missed a 3-point shot with 35 seconds left, and in the ensuing battle for the loose ball rebound, there was a held ball. The arrow pointed toward UMass, so Kellogg's team got the ball back.
The Hawks fouled guard Trey Davis twice in the final 33 seconds, and the sophomore guard who came into the game shooting 23 of 28 from the foul line, made three of his final four shots to ice the victory.
In UMass' 10-0 start, the Minutemen scored under 80 points just once. Since then, they have scored more than 70 once and are on a three-game winning streak that might not be as aesthetically pleasing as what had been seen earlier in the year.
The UMass coach said that is only going to help the team as the conference schedule moves along.
"It's probably not going to be as pretty as much we'd like it to be this year," he said. "You can feel it. They're coming in here after us.
"You're pretty good when you can withstand teams coming in, and they're doing a really good job of game-planning for us. We've got to continue to buy into what we do."
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