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Win over La Salle a step in right direction for UMass men’s basketball

As the calendar turned from 2012 to 2013, many University of Massachusetts fans found the Minutemen’s sizable collection of late-game wins and last-second heroics more a cause of consternation than excitement.

They wondered why UMass wasn’t blowing out Siena, Elon, Northeastern, Harvard, Miami (Ohio) and a short-handed Providence squad. They considered those wins more dodged bullets than building blocks of a good season.

But Wednesday night all of those wins had a little piece of the Minutemen’s 61-60 victory over La Salle in Philadelphia. When the game was tight in the final minutes, the UMass players’ confidence from having been there before helped deliver their biggest win of the season and perhaps raise their profile.

In the postgame press conference La Salle coach John Giannini told a story about offering a friend tickets to Wednesday’s game.

“UMass? You’ll beat them the way you’re playing,” the friend told Giannini.

Many UMass fans probably would have agreed. La Salle was coming off back-to-back upsets of No. 9 Butler and No. 16 Virginia Commonwealth and the Explorers had dominated the Minutemen in recent years.

Instead, UMass delivered its best overall effort of the season and put itself into the Atlantic 10 championship discussion and perhaps the NCAA tournament picture.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the win is a sign of things to come, but it did reflect a few key reasons for optimism down the stretch.

e_STnSThe Minutemen have become a good road team at 6-1. One of last year team’s weaknesses was playing outside Massachusetts. But UMass has shown the ability to still make key plays in hostile environments. Its only true road loss was a close game at Saint Louis when it had just lost Jesse Morgan to a knee injury.

e_STnSIt won without a lot of points from Chaz Williams. La Salle did a great job of preventing Williams from getting a lot of good looks. Instead of trying to force offense like he has before, Williams was comfortable being a facilitator, playing a smart game as his teammates picked up the scoring load.

e_STnSRaphiael Putney appears to be returning to form. During the past four games, Putney has been aggressive going to the basket instead of settling for 3-pointers. He’s been active defensively and on the glass, and has given the Minutemen a lift in the process.

e_STnSFreddie Riley has become a legitimate defensive presence. Ramon Galloway scored 17 points for La Salle. Take away two transition dunks that weren’t Riley’s fault and Galloway, one of the league’s best scorers, was just 5 for 16 as Riley forced him into several tough shots. Combined with his resilient offense, Riley has helped counteract the loss of Morgan.

e_STnSUMass has become a much better half-court team on offense and defense. The Minutemen will still hang their hats on transition and pressure, but they’ve been much better when forced to play in the half court on both ends. A big piece of that has been Cady Lalanne, who’s shown an array of post moves and post defense that could make him a star somewhere down the line.

It’s important to remember, however, that as much positive energy as UMass is feeling right now, La Salle was feeling more after its two big victories last week. Things can go backward fast if the intensity wanes. Wednesday’s win needs to be a step on the climb, not the top of the mountain.

The Atlantic 10 schedule is a bear this year with more tough teams than ever before. Coming out of it with a good record won’t be easy for anyone. But the other side of that coin is a lot of opportunities for big wins. If the Minutemen can match Wednesday’s effort more nights than not down the stretch, something special could await them.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

Great team road win! GO UMASS!

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