UMass falls to SLU in Chaz's last home tilt

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
9:42
PM ET
AMHERST, Mass. -- The stage was set. For Chaz Williams and the University of Massachusetts Minutemen, it could be no other way.

All season, UMass had won, but won hard, won barely. In charging out to a 23-6 record, 10-5 in the Atlantic 10, they had worn their teeth down to the jawbone. In their 10 league wins, they had trailed in the final five minutes an almost unfathomable eight times.

[+] EnlargeChaz Williams
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesChaz Williams put on another show for the Mullins Center faithful in his final home game, producing 20 points and 9 assists.
And so, Sunday afternoon's regular-season finale against first-place Saint Louis was familiar territory. This time the Minutemen decided to ratchet up the degree of difficulty even further, not trailing at all in the second half until Jordair Jett's driving hoop gave the Billikens a 64-62 advantage with just 3.4 seconds left.

But no jet in the league is quite as fast as Williams. He got the ball and began blazing upcourt, thinking just one thing: "Man, I've got to make something happen."

**

Win or lose, this was going to be a special day for Williams -- his last game in Amherst. Across the country, Senior Days are always poignant, if clichéd, affairs. They represent the end of a brief but intense road. There are family members and flowers and pictures with the coach, rousing ovations from the home crowd.

But for the little speck of the universe that is the Mullins Center in Amherst, there was a little extra something in saying goodbye to Williams. Very few, if any, of the 351 Division I teams are so clearly identified with one player as their unquestioned leader. Williams has been a transformative presence at UMass, the dynamo with the bravado, the little player with the huge heart. He has made the game fun again in Amherst. He has lifted his teammates to new heights and brought the program back to a place where it has not been in many moons.

Williams' numbers tell part of the story. He came in as the team's leading scorer at 15.7 points per game. And though he was just finishing up his third season at UMass (having played his freshman year at Hofstra), he entered tied for the most assists in school history with Chris Lowe. At a school with a rich point guard history -- including Rick Pitino and current coach Derek Kellogg -- Williams was about to stand alone. He was the alley to thunderous oops, the ally to all kinds of hoops, and to all kinds of hopes for UMass fans. He played the game with audacity. He barreled and blazed and went careening to the floor time after time. He did that point guard thing exceptionally, making those around him better.

Moreover, the full house at the Mullins Center, something that was now becoming routine after years of sparse crowds, knew some of his story. They had read about Williams, at age 9, losing his father to a brain tumor. They knew that his mom's name, Diane, was tattooed across his chest. They knew he had a vivacious 3-year-old daughter named Cheree.

The women in Williams' life were on hand for the Senior Day ceremony, even his grandmother. It looked like an entire precinct from Brooklyn joining him before the game as the fans swirled towels and called his name. His right hand barely surfaced above his family as he saluted the fans back, standing side by side with Kellogg.

"Coach Kellogg is a part of my family as well," Williams said. "It's great that we came here, and we did this together. It wasn't a path and a journey that I had to take on my own."

After the ceremony, after the rock star introductions -- the music building up so much you'd think that Jesus was in the starting lineup -- right before tipoff, Williams went by himself underneath the basket on the north side of the arena, as he does before each game. He looked up through the hoop, lifted his right arm and pointed to the rafters.

"I'm just talking to my dad," he explained after the game, "knowing that's he's with me -- not physically, but spiritually and emotionally. I just say my ritual stuff: 'Dad, here we are once again.'"

[+] EnlargeChaz Williams
Anthony Nesmith/CSM/AP ImagesJordair Jett was a little bit better than Chaz Williams in the final seconds of the Billikens' win.
The game had played out according to plan. Williams led all scorers with 20 points. His 9 assists would have been far more if his teammates had hit some open shots. (Only Derrick Gordon with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting was much of a help on the offensive end.) The team defense was solid. UMass led most of the way, but seldom by more than a few points. And then Jett, perhaps the league's MVP -- if it's not Williams -- blazed through the defense to bank home the go-ahead shot for his 16th and 17th points with just a few ticks left.

No time to waste. Williams was in overdrive, defended by Jett, a burly guard with long, bobbing dreadlocks. Jett said that he was determined to contest, but not to foul. He acknowledged that Williams was brutal to guard. "It's tough, real tough," he said. "He's small, but he's compact, and he's real fast."

From about 30 feet away, soaring forward and a bit off-balance, Williams let fly, the ball back-spinning toward the hoop as the buzzer sounded.

**

His first game here, in November 2011, came in Kellogg's fourth season as head coach. None of the previous three had been winning seasons, the most recent one a sap-sucking 15-15 campaign that began with a 7-0 start. It had ended with a loss at Fordham (the Rams' first Atlantic 10 win after 41 straight defeats), and a demoralizing 28-point loss at home to Dayton in the first round of the A-10 tournament.

Enter Chaz Williams. On his team bio on the UMass website, he told Minutemen fans some interesting information. He was lactose intolerant. His favorite book was a biography of Albert Einstein. And the thing that he would like to do before graduation was simple: NCAA tournament.

The Minutemen had not been since 1998 -- not long after dinosaurs became extinct, an era when stats were still kept by abacus. His first two seasons, the Minutemen came close -- winning more than 20 games each time, making it to the NIT. This season would be his last chance.

Going into the finale against Saint Louis, with the Atlantic 10 tournament pending next week, the NCAA bid looked pretty well wrapped up. According to every Lunardian out there, bracketologists from sea to shining sea, hoop nerds who study the RPI, the BPI and the SOS, UMass was already home free, no matter what happened in this game or the A-10 tourney. Williams had apparently already led his team to the Promised Land with one dramatic win after another.

As such, this game was a real goodbye, an authentic farewell, not a "maybe we'll see you for a home NIT game and pretend like it really matters" kind of deal. So in a fairy-tale world of college hoops, while Williams' grandmother and mother and little girl rose to their feet, that ball would hit nothing but the bottom of the net on the north side of the Mullins Center.

**

As it turned out, it banged off the front rim for a disappointing 64-62 loss.

"Today, I don't know if the basketball gods were with us," Kellogg said.

"Everybody in the locker room was sad because they wanted us seniors to go out on a great note," said Williams, referring not just to himself, but to Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney. "We had a great crowd tonight."

But he was already turning the page. The Minutemen head down to the Atlantic 10 tournament, now as the 6-seed. They will take on Rhode Island on Thursday night and have to win four games in four days to take the title.

The tournament will take place down at the Barclays Center. That's in Brooklyn, where Willliams grew up.

Leaving the interview room, he already has his game face on.

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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