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Maxie Esho leads UMass men’s basketball to win at Northern Illinois

DeKALB, Ill. — The University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team had an unfamiliar halftime margin in Saturday’s game.

The Minutemen, who had not gone into the half with a double-digit lead this season, led by 13. They held on in the second half for a 64-59 win at Northern Illinois.

But the way the team finished out the first half, with a foul on Huskies guard Akeem Springs who made two free throws, did not sit well with UMass forward Terrell Vinson.

“We were proud that we were up by” 13, Vinson said. “But we didn’t close it out correctly. We’ve got to find a way to not do that.”

Their first double-digit win seemed to be within the Minutemen’s sights, but Vinson was right not to take comfort. Northern Illinois steadily chipped away at the UMass lead throughout the second half.

Abdel Nader scored eight points in the last six minutes, and the Huskies were down just two when he took the ball up the court with 22 seconds remaining. Nader turned the ball over, and the Minutemen escaped with the win.

“We’re still trying to develop a killer (mentality) a little bit, of trying to extend the lead and really put it on them for 40 minutes,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said.“Northern Illinois came back and made a game of it … I’m really waiting for this team to start closing some games out if you have the opportunity.”

Despite their record, the Huskies (2-10) are not an easy team to put away. They played close games on the road against DePaul and Washington during the last two weeks.

The Minutemen were cold early. After Jesse Morgan sank a 3-pointer in the second minute, UMass did not score for the next 3½ minutes.

But the Minutemen put on a surge, going on an 18-7 run, including five points from Vinson, who surpassed 1,000 career points in the first half.

Point guard Chaz Williams picked up his second foul with 8 minutes, 38 seconds remaining in the half and sat until intermission. Trey Davis entered the game after returning from an ankle injury, and the fast-paced UMass offense kept humming with the freshman running the point

After Northern Illinois made a push to cut the UMass lead to two, the Minutemen put together a 15-3 run to close out the half. Maxie Esho scored 11 points in the half, scoring on four dunks in the last five minutes.

The Huskies turned the ball over in four out of their last five possessions, and UMass went into the half with a 36-23 lead.

“Defensively, we picked the pace up and we forced some turnovers and made them play faster than they wanted to,” Kellogg said. “Trey did a nice job. He really does a good job of hitting ahead. The guys seem like they run more for him at times.”

But four different players scored for Northern Illinois in the first seven minutes of the second half, cutting the Minuteman lead to seven.

UMass was able to maintain a multi-possession lead until Huskies forward Kevin Gray made two free throws with 4:03 remaining to make the score 55-52.

Nader, who started the game 1-for-9 from the field, sank a three 3-pointer with 58 seconds left to cut the deficit to two. The sophomore finished with 15 points on 4-of-15 shooting.

Esho led UMass with a season-high 14 points, and Vinson finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. Williams scored 12 points and dished out three assists.

The Minutemen committed 20 turnovers and were outrebounded 39-33, but they were able to squeak past the Huskies by shooting 16-for-27 on two-point shots.

“We’ve worked on trying to improve our decision-making as a team,” Kellogg said. “Obviously (the 20 turnovers) are a major sticking point, and many of them were unforced.”

UMass (8-3) continues its road trip at Miami (Ohio) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“This was a game that scared me a little bit, and I was happy to come out with a win,” Kellogg said. “All-in-all, it wasn’t a pretty game, but at the same time, we’ll take the victory.”

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