The Charlotte 49ers, channeling their deep bench, found a way to fend off the Massachusetts Minutemen and pull out a 66-65 victory at Homecoming.
With 18 seconds remaining, UMass' (14-6, 4-3) Chaz Williams hit a layup to bring the 49ers (17-4, 5-2) lead to just one. That would prove to be the final score of the game; after E. Victor Nickerson missed two free throws the Minutemen had just over 10 seconds to win the game.
This past Wednesday, the shifty Massachusetts guard, Williams zipped through a La Salle defense to score the game winning basket. In Halton Arena on Saturday the Minutemen were in the same situation, and tried to convert on the same play that previously resulted in a win. As Williams began his drive into the paint, Willie Clayton clogged the lane giving Pierria Henry enough time to rip the ball from the UMass guard, securing the victory.
After the game, there was heavy speculation over the officiating towards the end of the contest. While referees are known for swallowing their whistle in last-chance situations, Henry's steal could have been construed as a foul. To Niner Nation's relief, and the chagrin of the Massachusetts crowd, Henry ran away with possession, draining the last three seconds off the clock.
After the game Williams spoke about the incident saying, "Things happen, and I'll take the good with the bad. I think I got fouled, but I don't want to put that in the ref's hands."
Henry, when asked the same, bluntly commented, "I fouled him, but it ain't in the record books."
The 49ers bench production outscored the Minutemen's 32-9, testifying to the depth Charlotte Head Coach Alan Major has referenced all season. The 49er backups needed to be as reliable as ever for this matchup, considering the tumultuous week the Niners have experienced leading up to this game.
After a deflating blowout loss on the road to George Washington, the team lost DeMario Mayfield to an indefinite suspension. If losing the team's leading scorer for the foreseeable future wasn't enough to write Charlotte off, Darion Clark was also forced to miss the Homecoming matchup due to a sprained ankle.
"I really want to give special credit to Ivan Benkovic and Mike Thorne," Coach Major said about the two substitutes for Charlotte that seldom get on the court; he continued, "That's the depth we have, that's what I toss and turn over every night. How you find a way to make it all work from one night to the next."
Benkovic's opportune three-pointers gave him 10 points. Thorne, at 6'10" 254lbs., forced UMass to work outside of the paint; in his nine minutes of play he finished with 5 points and 2 rebounds.
The 49er that shined the brightest against the Minutemen was E. Victor Nickerson; the sophomore guard led the team with 12 points, also recording 5 rebounds and a steal. Nickerson had four of the team's final five points to ensure the victory. Coach Major said about players like Nickerson and Benkovic getting extended minutes of playing time.
"You can shoot as many jumpers as you want, you can practice all you want, you can watch all the film you want, but the game is the single greatest teacher in basketball… it accelerates your growth, your IQ, and your maturity; so the more guys we can get in there from time to time, and let them mature a little bit will help us down the stretch."
Willie Clayton's electrifying style of play is hard to ignore, every time he makes a basket it seems to send Halton Arena into frenzy. On a free throw, Clayton scored the last point for Charlotte to help them edge out the one-point win; he wrapped up the game with 8 points and 6 rebounds.
Everyone that received playing time against Massachusetts recorded at least 1 rebound and 4 points. Minutemen Head Coach Derek Kellogg spoke about the difficulties of facing the 49ers, "They're one of the more physical teams we've played all year; I thought they were very physical on posts, and physical on drives"
This victory marks the final time Homecoming will be a basketball event for UNC Charlotte; in the following years it will be held in the fall as a football occasion.
The raucous crowd at Halton Arena topped off capacity with 9,105 attendees. "…The coaches are talking about how hard and tough it is, but I think the atmosphere was great," the Minutemen coach, Kellogg mentioned, "It may have given them a little boost there when they needed it coming down the stretch."
The 49ers schedule doesn't let up at all, as Charlotte travels to Philadelphia to battle the Temple Owls (14-6, 3-3) on Wednesday. Following that, Halton arena will host another important game concerning Atlantic 10 positioning when the VCU Rams (17-5, 5-2) come to Charlotte on Saturday Feb. 9 at 7 pm.