AMHERST, Mass. -- The storm clouds were descending on the Mullins Center, dark and foreboding.
An upset was brewing in Amherst, as with 9:49 remaining in Saturday’s game No. 19 Massachusetts trailed St. Bonaventure by 13.
The Minutemen had sputtered and stuttered all afternoon. If they got a defensive stop, they committed a turnover on offense. If they converted a rim-rattling dunk, they gave up an easy layup in transition.
Twice in the first half they endured long field goal droughts, going nearly five minutes at one point and nearly six and a half minutes at another without a make from the floor. No member of the Minutemen had more than one made field goal in the first 20 minutes, Raphiael Putney led the team with five points and they trailed the Bonnies by seven at the break.
Then things got worse early in the second half.
“We know now that everybody puts a target on our back,” UMass forward Sampson Carter said. “They’re coming at us man, so we’re just trying to, you know ...”
“We’re trying to stand our ground as much as possible,” UMass point guard Chaz Williams said, finishing the thought for his teammate. “Just be ready for whatever’s thrown at us. We know it’s not gonna be easy every night. But today we got down on ourselves early and we had to play comeback. That’s not how we want to play, but fortunately ...”
Fortunately, college basketball games are 40 minutes, not 30 minutes. Because in the last 9:49, the Minutemen finally clicked into gear and roared back for a 73-68 win.
It started when Williams lofted an alley-oop to Putney, who finished with flair. The Minutemen bounced into their full-court press off the make, and the spindly 6-foot-9, 185-pound Putney slid in front of Charlon Kloof on the inbounds and absorbed a blow to take the charge.
“That was a huge momentum play,” Williams said of the sequence that started with the alley-oop. “Ralph told me he was gonna go, and I just told him to be ready to finish. And that’s what he did. He’d been preaching defense since the last game and he came out and showed it tonight, by paying attention to scouting reports and details and beating [Kloof] to the spot and taking a charge.”
“Coach kept telling me I’m one of the best defensive players in the country,” Putney said, “so I just kept that in my mindset and I just brung it today, brought my intensity and picked it up. If i just focus on my defense, everything else will come.”
Come it did, as Putney scored 10 in the rally as the Minutemen came all the way back to within two after a Trey Davis layup with 1:52 to play.
Before the layup, the sophomore from Desoto, Texas, had been just 1-for-9 for the game. But that didn’t stop his teammates from looking for him late.
Putney missed a 3 from the left side, the rebound bouncing long and landing in the hands of Carter. Fighting the impulse to put it right back up, as the clock closed in on 75 ticks to go, the senior swung it to Davis in front of the UMass bench.
“He just happened to be right there,” Carter said. “And I knew he just had missed one. I know what type of player he is, if he misses one the next one is going in. He was open and he knocked it down.”
The 3 gave the Minutemen their first lead since it was 17-15 with 7:44 left in the first half, and electrified the crowd of 6,634. The hosts didn’t trail again.
“We were fortunate, again, to come away with a win,” coach Derek Kellogg said, “but there’s gonna be a lot of these. We’re gonna be in a lot of dogfights. Teams are playing us physical, they’re playing tough.”
If the Minutemen want to hold onto their first Top 20 ranking since the late ‘90s and make some serious noise in the Atlantic 10 season and on into March, the Minutemen know they’ll have to make a first half like Saturday’s a thing of the past.
“I feel like now, since we’ve had the success with winning, we don’t want to experience losing too much,” Williams said. “So we just found the inner strength to want to win. Coach just kept on us, told us to continue to play hard. We just pulled together as a group.
“I’m happy for my teammates and the program for the win.”
Once they got it going, the Minutemen were too much for the Bonnies -- who had won four straight entering the game, but hadn’t beaten a Top 25 team since 2000, a streak of 22 straight losses -- as they forced 12 second-half turnovers and turned them into 20 points.
“We’re gonna try to stay out of that,” Kellogg said of being in position to have to come back late, which the Minutemen did twice in the past week. “That was not a good situation to be in. But you can feel it sometimes, the crowd starts eases into it, the guys start playing with a little more pep and we get a little bit tougher defensively.
“We’re probably not quite good enough to just turn it on and off, though, we’ve gotta turn the spigot on and keep it on for 40 minutes.”
The trick now is to learn how to impose their preferred style of play on opponents earlier in games, so that they don’t allow the storm clouds to gather quite so thickly next time.
“Our will is gonna have to overcome some of these teams,” Kellogg said. “If you want to play this way, ‘Well we’re playing this way, so too bad, this is how we do things.’ I’d like for it to happen sooner than later.
“I’m sweating through shirts in the first half right now. our dry cleaning bills are through the roof.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.