UMass rallied from a 22-point hole early in the second half to defeat Rider, 77-67. Senior Anthony Gurley led the assault with a career-high 31 points, the most by a Minutemen player in a season debut since Marcus Camby tallied 32 against Kentucky in the 1995-96 opener.
While UMass coach Derek Kellogg wasn’t expecting the comeback, he was impressed with how his players stormed back to earn a hard-fought victory.
“That’s what I’ve been preaching since I’ve been here,” Kellogg said. “Sometimes you’re not going to play your best but you’re going to find a way to win or you’re going to claw your way back into games. That’s the first time we’ve done that and finished it off since I’ve been in the coach here.”
Standing in the way of the Minutemen being 2-0 for the first time since 2007 is opponent Sacred Heart, which will travel to the Mullins Center on Wednesday.
UMass has never faced the Pioneers, who are 0-2 to begin the year, dropping their home opener against Fairfield and their road tilt to Fordham.
The Rams held Sacred Heart to 51 points, which was a season-high for the Pioneers. Fordham shot 55.6 percent from the field in the second half and pulled away on a 13-2 run en route to the 69-51 victory.
Sophomore Shane Bison led Sacred Heart in the loss, scoring 11 points and pulling down five rebounds.
“They’re a young team, they have a senior point guard and a couple guys that are seniors, but they’re a young team that’s going through some growing pains right now,” Kellogg said. “I’m hoping that they’re a little tired, the guys are starting to get worn down a little bit mentally.”
Heading into the matchup with the Pioneers, Kellogg is planning on using the same starting lineup, but mixing in guys who played well in the season opener.
“Well, there were some guys that earned playing time that up until that point, probably weren’t going to play a ton,” Kellogg said. “The one guy is Matt Hill. I thought he came in and gave us a huge boost in the second half.”
Hill was inserted to provide more defense and mobility against Broncs forward Mike Ringgold in the second half, who despite scoring 21 points, did most of his damage in the first half.
Against Sacred Heart and the rest of the teams on its schedule, UMass knows it can’t put itself in a hole like that again by struggling on the defensive end of the court.
Kellogg, however, was pleased to see his players showing signs of improvement in the first game.
“The defense has been better,” Kellogg said. “I thought all-in-all, the guys looked like they know where they’re supposed to be, the intensity is a little better. The rebounding is still isn’t where it needs to be for us to be a big-time college basketball team.”
Last season, the Minutemen ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Atlantic 10 in scoring defense, allowing 74.9 points per game.
The contest between UMass and Sacred Heart will tipoff at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center.
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com.