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Bench delivering for UMass men's basketball team 

UMass senior guard Freddie Riley shoots a 3-pointer against East Carolina in the first half of the Minutemen's 88-81 win over the Pirates at the Mullins Center on Dec. 22.

UMass senior guard Freddie Riley shoots a 3-pointer against East Carolina in the first half of the Minutemen's 88-81 win over the Pirates at the Mullins Center on Dec. 22. Purchase photo reprints »

The University of Massachusetts senior guard had delivered some big nights, but they rarely came consecutively as consistency has been hard to come by.

But in the Minutemen’s wins over East Carolina and Northern Illinois, Riley posted 14 and 11 points off the bench, respectively. Without his points, UMass might have lost one or both of those games.

As the Minutemen try to win their sixth straight game tonight at 7 p.m. at Miami (Ohio), Riley is as confident and comfortable as he’s been in quite a while.

“I’ve been playing with a clear mind,” said Riley who has “Pray More, Worry Less” tattooed on his left arm. “I don’t think too much about making a mistake or missing and making a shot. It’s been working for me. It feels good. I’m happier. That’s a good thing.

“I’m just trying to enjoy these last couple months of my senior year. Early in the season, I had a lot of stuff on my mind about my future and all that,” he continued. “I haven’t been thinking about that. I’ve been thinking about my next three or four months.”

Riley has been a key part of a bench trio — along with Maxie Esho and Cady Lalanne — who have often come into the game together and given the Minutemen a lift lately. Riley said the group has embraced its role.

“We talk about it a lot. We just want to help the team out when we come in, give the team an extra boost. That’s what we’re required to do,” he said. “We all know what we’re capable of. We know we can play with the starting five. We know we could be starters, but we embrace our role coming off the bench, just helping the team. It shows that we’re getting closer and that we want to win more than anything else.”

Esho, whose 14 points against Northern Illinois were critical to UMass’ win, agreed.

“I spoke with coach at the beginning of the year. He said he wanted me to bring energy. I said, ‘Any way I can help the team.’ Starting or coming off the bench, as long as I get my chance to come in and help the team, starting doesn’t matter to me,” Esho said. “We talk on the bench when the game starts. If the starting five is doing well, we’ll say, ‘Let’s go in and keep it up.’ If not, we’ll try to come in and bring life and energy.”

Lalanne and Riley have both been starters before and Esho has played well enough to be one this year, but UMass coach Derek Kellogg isn’t inclined to mess with his rotation in the midst of a winning streak.

“Maxie is playing starter minutes (21.4 per game) and he’s playing like a starter, but I feel like we have a pretty good rotation going and guys are buying into their roles finally. To try to tinker with that when you’re winning games isn’t something I’d normally do,” Kellogg said. “Really, we start seven or eight. It’s nice when they do well and it puts pressure on the guys that are getting more minutes to produce because there’s somebody behind you.”

UMass’ frenetic pace makes having an effective bench that much more critical.

“Whey you’re striving to be a very good team, players aren’t going to play great every night. You have to have different guys step up and really help the team,” Kellogg said. “It’s nice that we can win a game on the road when some of our so-called better players don’t play well. That means we’re growing a little bit and improving. There’s still a long road for improving. Even the guys that are playing more minutes can continue to give more and get better.”

Despite school not being in session, Kellogg opted to bring his team home between road games at Northern Illinois and Miami after seeing his team struggle on the back end of previous two-game trips.

“Any time you have a couple road games in a week, you want to make sure you stay mentally focused,” he said. “That was one of the big reasons I came back, to make it feel like it was two trips instead of one long road trip. We’ve been on those trips before and they’re not conducive to what I’m trying to do.”

The RedHawks enter the game at 5-6. They beat Grambling, William & Mary, James Madison, Illinois-Chicago and Wilmington, a Division III school in Ohio, while falling to North Carolina State, Louisville, Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, Evansville, Dayton and Wright State.

After missing last year with a right knee injury, junior guard Allen Roberts has given Miami a lift upon his return. He’s averaging a team-high 12.0 points per game and has had 15 or more five times.

The game will pit Miami, which is undefeated (4-0) at John D. Millett Hall this season, against UMass, which is 3-0 in true road games.

“They’re undefeated at home. It’s a tough game. It scares me. The Northern Illinois game scared me also. It’s a place that’s foreign to my team and myself,” Kellogg said.

Rebounding has been a problem for the Red Hawks, who are among the nation’s worst teams on the boards with 28.7 per game. They’ve been outrebounded by 8.2 per game.

Jon Harris, a 6-foot-8 junior forward, is their top rebounder at 5.1 per game, but on offense he’s often more of a perimeter player, leading Miami in 3-point percentage (.455, 20-for-44.).

Kellogg expected Miami to be willing to play up-tempo with UMass.

“They play an interesting style, pressing the whole game. They’re playing a 3-point shooting, fast-paced game,” Kellogg said. “They’re running and jumping. They’re similar, watching them on tape, to us. All bets are off when two teams are pressing, running around and shooting threes.”

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.

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