UMass basketball: La Salle rallies from big deficit, hands Minutewomen 8th straight loss

UMass’ Kristin Williams (5) goes to the basket while defended by La Salle’s Makayla Miller (13) during the visiting Explorers’ 63-61 Atlantic 10 victory on Wednesday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass’ Kristin Williams (5) goes to the basket while defended by La Salle’s Makayla Miller (13) during the visiting Explorers’ 63-61 Atlantic 10 victory on Wednesday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass’ Stefanie Kulesza (44) readies for a shot attempt against La Salle during the visiting Explorers’ 63-61 Atlantic 10 victory on Wednesday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass’ Stefanie Kulesza (44) readies for a shot attempt against La Salle during the visiting Explorers’ 63-61 Atlantic 10 victory on Wednesday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 01-31-2024 3:55 PM

AMHERST — Down by three points with eight seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, UMass junior guard Kristin Williams received a pass from Bre Bellamy on the wing with time ticking away.

Williams took one dribble to control the ball and square her shoulders to the hoop. From about six feet behind the three-point line, she let fly a shot to tie the game. When the ball hit nothing but nylon on its way through the hoop, knotting the score at 61, La Salle head coach Mountain MacGillivray called timeout with 3.8 seconds to go.

On the ensuing possession, Stefanie Kulesza bumped Explorers guard Makayla Miller out of bounds and was whistled for her fifth foul. Being in the bonus, Miller stepped to the line with a chance to win it. She calmly connected on both free throws, and UMass guard Alexsia Rose’s last-second heave from half court bounced off the rim at the buzzer.

The Minutewomen led for over 30 of the 40 minutes of game action, but were outscored 25-14 in the fourth quarter as they dropped their eighth straight game on Wednesday afternoon at the Mullins Center.

“Really tough call for Stef and for our team,” UMass head coach Mike Leflar said of Kulesza’s late foul. “As I shared with our team, we were up by 15 points, so it didn’t just come down to that call.”

Williams’ game-tying 3-pointer was her second in as many possessions after going 1-for-5 prior, and MacGillivray knew it was money the second she shot it – despite her being well behind the line and fading a bit to her right.

“Did anybody think that wasn’t going in when it left her hand?” he joked. “It wasn’t really a crazy shot. It was a really good player making a really good shot. She was well-guarded, but as soon as it left her hands, I was like, ‘Ooh, timeout,’ because I knew it was going in. Hats off to her. Game plan number one for us was to limit her opportunities. We felt really good until those last two plays.”

UMass went on a 12-0 run in the opening quarter to jolt out to a 12-3 lead, and followed that up with a 13-2 run over a 3-minute, 48-second stretch in the second quarter to build a 30-16 lead. The advantage grew to as many as 15 in the quarter after Williams (15 points) buried her first of three long balls.

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From there, La Salle slowly started to chip away.

The deficit became 12 at halftime, and nine at the end of the third. UMass then began the fourth quarter without a point until Bellamy converted two free throws with 4:26 left in regulation. That dry spell let the Explorers right back in the game, as they scored the first 12 points of the quarter – from five different players – to take a 50-47 lead. The 12-0 spurt was sparked by a 12-1 second-half discrepancy in offensive rebounds, which led to a 19-6 second-chance points output in favor of La Salle.

Bellamy’s two at the line cut it to one, Tori Hyduke swished a mid-range jumper and the Minutewomen were back in business, 51-50. But back-to-back 3s from Tiara Bolden and Nicole Melious put La Salle in front 56-51, a lead it wouldn’t give up the rest of the way.

“More than any other game this year, that one really stung,” Leflar said. “[We] had a big lead, and we came out with a lot of great energy and got off to a great start. We wanna put ourselves in those positions. There’s always gonna be adversity that hits, win or lose. In those moments, we kind of reverted back to some old habits and gave them life in the third quarter. We found a way to lose in the fourth quarter, and it really stung.”

Rose led UMass with a game-high 18 points while adding three assists and a steal. Through the first three quarters, she put relentless pressure on the La Salle defense and got to the line at will (where she made eight of nine attempts). With just under six minutes remaining in the game, Leflar subbed Rose out, and she sat for nearly the rest of the frame until there were just 19 seconds left.

The senior did have a team-high four turnovers and struggled when the Explorers upped their intensity, so perhaps Leflar felt more comfortable with the lineup he had on the floor.

“I thought the five on the floor were the five that gave us the best chance to win the game at that time,” Leflar said.

Aside from Rose’s 18 and Williams’ 15, Hyduke added seven points, Kulesza put up six points, six rebounds and three assists while Bellamy (six boards, three assists) and Lilly Taulelei added five points apiece.

Wednesday stood as field trip day for UMass, and thousands of kids poured into the Mullins Center to cheer on the Minutewomen. Williams loved the energy they brought, and she hopes to have inspired them to one day be collegiate basketball players just like her.

“We haven’t had fans here a lot, and there are no students here, so them coming I think really affected [the game],” Williams said. “And they get to see us out there having fun and doing what we love, so I think that really affects them generationally. And honestly I love it, when you make a three and they go crazy. That’s all you wanna hear.”

UMass (3-19, 1-9 A-10) hits the road on Saturday trying to avoid a ninth consecutive loss at Saint Joseph’s. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m.