UMass men's basketball hangs on to down George Mason at home
AMHERST — Preston Santos may do great things at the University of Massachusetts. After all, he is only a freshman. But what Santos did on Sunday afternoon could be as big as anything he does for the Minutemen this year.
Santos, who led the team in points (17) and assists (4) blocked Xavier Johnson's layup attempt with 12 seconds left, which helped UMass beat George Mason 69-67. The block, the only one for UMass in the game, preserved the win on a day where the Minutemen blew a 14-point lead in the final five minutes of the game.
The Patriots, who are helmed by former Williams College head coach Dave Paulsen, got the ball to Johnson, who took it hard to the hoop. Santos went straight up, blocked the shot and pulled down the rebound.
"I knew we had help side, so I just stepped over. It's either I can take a charge or, sometimes you have to risk it," Santos said, "and the risk is worth it. I might as well go for the block.
"I kept my hands straight up, because the last time, they called a charge instead of a block. I just grabbed [the ball] and came down with it."
The freshman from Providence, R.I., was fouled but missed the front end of a potentially game-icing 1-and-1. The Patriots missed a pair of tough 3-point shots in the final four seconds, and the Minutemen (10-14, 4-7 Atlantic 10) escaped with a victory.
"These games with Mason always seem to come down to the wire," UMass coach Matt McCall said. "For the first time in three years, it's great to be on the positive end of that wire."
The win by the Minutemen ended an eight-game losing streak against Paulsen's team. The last win came in February, 2016.
"Obviously, I'm extremely happy to find a way to win," McCall said, "after not really executing offensively down the stretch, the way we would like to have."
McCall was not exaggerating.
When Tre Mitchell, who finished with 16 points and five boards, penetrated into the lane and hit a pull-up jumper with 5:19 left, the Minutemen had come from being down 10 points in the first half to up 66-52. One might have excused some NBCSN viewers if they had changed the channel to XFL football.
Paulsen, who won an NCAA Division III championship with Williams in 2003, called time out to settle his troops. Settle them he did, because the Patriots came out of the time out and got a hoop by Javon Green. George Mason went 5 for 7 from the floor over the next 4 minutes, 21 seconds. UMass, on the other hand, was 0 for 4 with three turnovers. The last of those three turnovers came on a charge by Samba Diallo.
Mason's Josh Oduro missed a 3-point shot, but got a long rebound and the ball eventually found Jordan Miller on the left block for a deuce that tied the game at 66-66.
Thirteen seconds later, Dijabi Walker was fouled by Oduro, sending the Cleveland State transfer to the line. Walker calmly sank both free throws, putting the Minutemen up 68-66. UMass never trailed again.
Carl Pierre, who had a rough game (2 for 13 from the field, 0 for 5 from 3-point range), made the front end of a 1-and-1 with 27.7 ticks left. That set the stage for what happened in the final seconds.
The relief on the face of McCall was obvious.
"We just had to get stops down the stretch," he said. "I think it says a lot. I think we had Kolton in there, Tre and Preston. For those young guys to be in that moment in the game. The game got away from us.
"To show some resilience there. To get some stops with the game on the line, I was really proud of them."
The Minutemen trailed 20-10 midway through a first half that started like McCall's players forgot to set the alarms on their phones. A 15-0 run got the Minutemen back in it and when Sean East III went coast-to-coast before time expired in the first half, it was 35-35.
UMass used a 9-2 spurt in the second half to take a 52-43 lead, and then extended the advantage to 66-52 on Mitchell's hoop.
East had 12 points and Djery Baptiste had a season-best 10 for the Minutemen in their first win since beating Saint Joseph's back on Jan. 29.
Greene led George Mason with a game-high 19 points. UMass also forced him into eight turnovers.
The Minutemen will spend all week practicing in preparation for Saturday's game against now, No. 6 Dayton. The Flyers were ranked 15th back on Jan. 11, when UMass lost 88-60.
But while that is up ahead, the Minutemen coaches and players can take solace about one that did not slip away.
"There have been so many times where we've blown a lead and we've just let them keep going on their run," Mitchell said after the game. "We bounced back today. Whatever happened, we had an answer for it."
Howard Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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