It’s not often that the play of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team has people making comparisons to past UMass greats like Julius Erving and Marcus Camby. But for one night, junior guard Jesse Morgan had people rushing to check the school record books.
Morgan scored a career-high 35 points in the Minutemen’s 85-76 home win over Ohio in front of 3,821 spectators on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center. Morgan’s scoring output was the highest of any Atlantic 10 Conference player this year and is tied for the 13th most all-time in UMass history.
Morgan, who connected on 7-of-10 3-point attempts, said after the game that the rim felt “ocean big” to him as the game progressed. “After my first shot I felt like I couldn’t miss again,” he said.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who hasn’t been used to wins that don’t come down to the wire so far this season, said it was comforting to see Morgan playing with such confidence.
“It’s huge,” Kellogg said. “I’ve seen him do that before and to see him do it now in a college game was really just kind of uplifting for the team, (and) I think uplifting for the fans.
“As a coach, when he’s raising up and you think it’s in, instead of kind of praying that it goes in, it’s nice that I felt really confident about the guys over there today.”
UMass (6-3) used Morgan’s career-best shooting performance to help put together two extended scoring runs against a formidable Bobcat team that shot 45.3 percent from the field. After falling behind 18-6 in the game’s first five minutes, the Minutemen went on a 23-1 run powered by a flurry of Morgan 3-point makes, several of which coming at the edge of his self-described “in-the-gym” shooting range.
While the Bobcats’ (7-4) hot shooters — led by 23 points from senior guard D.J. Cooper — kept Ohio within striking distance throughout, UMass took a 48-40 advantage into the half and never relinquished the lead.
“I thought we took on a very good Ohio team that came in 7-3,” Kellogg said. “I thought our guys, except for the first probably four or five minutes of the game played at a high level and really played UMass basketball.”
Lost in the hype surrounding Morgan’s big night, perhaps to fans but not his coach, was the first career double-double from beleaguered sophomore forward Cady Lalanne. Lalanne, who made news after being arrested on Dec. 1, recently returned from suspension and put together his strongest showing yet against the Bobcats, tallying 12 points and 11 boards.
“I thought Cady was real big tonight getting some offensive rebound put backs,” Kellogg said. “(It was) by far the best game of the year for Cady.”
Junior guard Chaz Williams, who saw his 26-game double-digit scoring streak come to an end, played the role of trigger plan to a tee, making sure Morgan had the ball when he was hot and drawing off Lalanne’s offensive boards.
“Once I see (Morgan) hit, it’s no more going away from Jesse or run different plays,” Williams said. “You can’t let plays go without him touching the ball, and that’s exactly what I was out there trying to do.”
The Minutemen next play host to visiting East Carolina on Saturday when they look to extend their winning streak to four games at 1:30 p.m. at the Mullins Center.
Daniel Malone can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.