The 21st-ranked Minutemen needed a late rally to survive an upset bid by Eastern Michigan and win 69-57 on Tuesday night.
Raphiel Putney scored 15 points, including two high-flying dunks in the final minutes, for Massachusetts, which was last ranked in November 1998.
“I think teams you’re playing see that number next to your name, and (Eastern Michigan) made some plays in the first half that I haven’t seen on tape,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “You’ve got to stay grounded. There’s a lot of people giving us a lot of attention nationally, and as a young college kids you get ahead of yourself a little bit.”
Trey Davis scored 13 points while Cady Lalanne and Chaz Williams added 12 apiece. Lalanne grabbed 12 rebounds for the Minutemen (7-0).
UMass debuted in the poll at No. 24 after winning the Charleston Classic and moved up three spots this week despite having last week off.
Putney and Williams connected on an alley-oop pass that resulted in a three-point play with 6:14 left that gave UMass a 54-48 lead, its biggest of the game to that point. They connected again with 2:46 remaining when Putney’s one-handed slam gave the Minutemen a 62-55 lead.
“Those were definitely game-changers,” Putney said. “The and-1 dunk was a big-time dunk for us that got us a spark and fired us up on defense.”
UMass, which came in averaging 83.7 points per game, was playing its first true road game of the season after an eight-day layoff that included a Thanksgiving break during which Kellogg said “our guys might have had a little too much turkey.”
But Kellogg said his team’s slow start was equally attributable to the 2-3 zone defense employed by third-year Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy, a disciple of Jim Boeheim’s who spent seven years as an assistant at Syracuse.
The Minutemen were just 2 of 11 from 3-point range in the first half, which ended with Eastern Michigan leading 35-31. Those numbers improved dramatically in UMass’ favor in the second half, when the Minutemen picked up the defensive intensity. Their defense created some easy baskets during an 11-of-23 (47.8 percent) shooting performance in the second half compared to the Eagles’ 8-of-32 (25.0 percent) effort. Syracuse made 3 of 6 3-poimnt attempts in the second half.
“That’s been a staple of our team this year,” Kellogg said. “That’s when we’ve played well, when we’ve played good defense.”
Karrington Ward and Daylen Harrison had 11 points each for Eastern Michigan (5-2), which was looking to beat a ranked team for the first time since 1997 and was hosting its first ranked opponent since Wisconsin visited in 1994.
Murphy thought his team let a program-changing moment slip through its grasp.
“We had a chance to be 6-1 and beat a Top 25 team in our building,” said Murphy, whose team also lost at No. 3 Kentucky and has late-December games at No. 10 Duke and No. 4 Syracuse. “Sure, there’s a bigger picture, but I don’t think we capitalized on an opportunity tonight.”
He pointed to Eastern Michigan’s 2-of-11 performance from the free-throw line in the first half.
“We should have been up 12 to 13 points to close the half,” Murphy said. “This was a winnable game.”