ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Controlling a 16-point lead with under seven minutes left, St. Bonaventure suddenly and shockingly saw it dwindle to one with 16 seconds left.
But the Bonnies prevailed, as Massachusetts forward Raphiael Putney's potentially game-winning 3-pointer clanked off the side of the rim, then Matthew Wright made two game-clinching free throws to send SBU to its first Atlantic 10 tournament championship since 2000.
"We found a way," said SBU coach Mark Schmidt. "We missed foul shots, made it close, but give UMass credit; they're talented. You don't win 22 games without having talented players. We found a way to win and move on."
The loss puts the Minutemen likely on the outside looking in at making the NCAA tournament, a day after knocking off top-seeded Temple in the
quarterfinals, but will have a probable bid at making the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) next week.
"I was proud of the team and the way they continued to fight and claw and try to come away with the win," said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. "We never totally got the game into our flow until the last like six, seven minutes of the game where it was a little more up and down."
In the final seven minutes, UMass outscored the Bonnies 24-8 that almost culminated in victory and a surprise berth in the championship game.
With 16 seconds left, the Bonnies' Charlon Kloof made one of two free throws to push the lead to two. With one final chance to tie or take the lead, Terrell Vinson found Putney for a wide-open 3-pointer that was just off.
"[Putney] was yelling at me like he was down there ready to shoot," said Vinson. "I saw that he was down there ready to shoot so I passed it to him. The ball was in the air for a long time but I thought it was down when it left his hands."
Vinson was the catalyst for UMass, scoring a team-high 20 points. He only saw five minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, but made the first nine Minutemen points in the second half to keep UMass close.
But SBU was too strong. They shot 50.1 percent from the field and despite conference player of the year Andrew Nicholson being limited due to foul trouble, the Bonnies pulled through.
Nicholson still finished with 19 points, but Demitrius Conger was the star of the game. He was two assists away from a triple-double with a game-high 22 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
"He gives us a lift every game, with rebounding great energy. He's solid," said Bonnies guard Jordan Gathers, who also gave the team a lift with nine points.
For UMass, there weren't many bright spots outside of its final run, but one of them was the play of freshman forward Maxie Esho. With Putney and Vinson on the bench for the majority of the first half in foul trouble, the freshman came in and gave UMass the spark it needed to stay in
He finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, including 14 and seven alone in the first half.
"It was nice to see a freshman come in and carry our team the first half there," said Kellogg. "It was nice to see him around the rim. He's probably the best guy we have on our team in the front of the press, and it was good to get him
confidence and have him feeling good about playing a lot of minutes in the first half."
The Bonnies will now play Xavier in the championship game on Sunday at 1 p.m., which will be nationally televised on CBS.
If they win, they will make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000, when they
lost to Kentucky in the first round.
"It would mean everything [to make the NCAA tournament]," said Conger. "That's what we played for, to get to the NCAA tournament, so that's our
goal. We will compete and do what we have to do."
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed
on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.