With just over a minute to play, Maxie Esho stole the ball, took a few dribbles, then cocked the ball back and slammed home a two-handed dunk. That play, which tells you everything you need to know about Esho, gave the UMass Minutemen a 63-62 lead over the St. Joesph's Hawks -- a lead they would never relinquish en route to a 66-62 win at the Mullins Center.
The dunk capped an 14-5 run that started with a Chaz Williams free throw at the 5:26 mark. Williams accounted for seven of those 11 points, adding a three-pointer and a layup that cut the lead to one just prior to Esho's game deciding play. The Minutemen's all-everything point guard finished with 22 points, but it was perhaps the last thing he did on the court that best represented his effort.
St. Joe's had the ball, down three, with 28 seconds left and wanted to get the ball to its leading scorer, Langston Galloway. That became impossible, however, as the Hawks spent eight seconds looking for a way to get around Williams' water-bug-like defense before ultimately taking another timeout. In theory, the Hawks had another shot at tying the game, but that sequence broke them and it showed when they came out of the timeout unable to get the shot they needed, setting for a Papa Ndao three with five seconds to play.
A Trey Davis free throw sealed the win and the No. 19 UMass Minutemen survived their first Atlantic 10 game of the season.
What was evident for long stretches of time during the game was that good defensive teams are going to find ways to stop UMass' potent offense. Other than Williams, UMass lacks a true floor-spacing threat from the outside that can scare a team out of sitting back, packing the paint and cutting off driving lanes. This slows down penetration, cuts off the slashing cuts UMass loves, and -- perhaps most of all -- nearly eliminates Cady Lalanne.
Lalanne was limited to 23 minutes, his third lowest total of the season, and scored just four points with four rebounds. Sampson Carter was equally invisible, going 0-for-7 from the field with three points and three rebounds in 24 minutes. If not for Esho and Williams' late heroics, we would likely be left wondering what happened to those two, but winning tends to cure all ills.
One ill winning cannot cure is inconsistency, though. Until UMass can figure out how to coax consistent performances from game-to-game and half-to-half, it will remain vulnerable to the let-down loss.