The Massachusetts men’s basketball team looked out of whack.
Eastern Michigan was set up in its zone defense, as the Minutemen tried to move the ball around the perimeter to create some sort of offense. But as it turned out, all UMass could muster was an occasional 3-point conversion and a 12-10 deficit.
That was until Freddie Riley checked into the game. From that point on, it was as if the Minutemen were firing up golf balls into the middle of the ocean.
Riley sunk five straight triples to spark a 24-5 Minuteman run midway through the first half to catapult the home team to a 17-point lead; one which it held onto for a 75-61 handling of the Eagles Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center.
Riley finished 6-of-9 from 3-point range as part of his 18-point afternoon in 23 minutes. Riley’s sharp shooting sparked UMass’ 11-for-25 showing from beyond the arc, including a 9-for-19 pace after he first checked into the game.
“I just wanted to come in and play confident,” Riley said, “and the shots went in, so I just kept shooting.”
Chaz Williams, who assisted on two of Riley’s triples during the run, knows that once Riley is hot, it’s best to keep feeding him while he’s in that zone.
“You gotta get Fred the ball when he’s on fire,” Williams said. “He got a little red match under his feet, and he just kept scoring. And once he get his roll going, you just gotta keep going to him.”
UMass coach Derek Kellogg said it was nice to see Riley go on a “Freddie-Riley-esqe” run, and feels Riley’s development as a complete player has helped earn him more minutes than simply being turned to when he’s knocking down jumpers.
“In years previous, (I put him in) when he was hot to a certain extent; if he makes his first couple, we stay with him,” Kellogg said. “He’s actually becoming a good basketball player. Defensively, he’s really getting after it, I think he’s driving the ball in the paint and being strong. … It really is nice to see a kid mature and grow up and get older and become a better basketball player.”
Lost in Riley’s overload of 3’s was the play of Maxie Esho, who came off the bench to score 13 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting, while hauling in nine rebounds. Esho was particularly effective running the baseline against the Eastern Michigan (7-7) zone, as his athleticism made him a mismatch in the paint to go along with his duties at the front of the full-court press.
“Right now, Maxie’s our best pressing guy and if the game is up and down and going, I think he’s very good, and I think I found a spot where I can play him in the zone, which is kind of along that baseline,” Kellogg said.
After the Minutemen (10-3) struggled early against the zone, Kellogg called upon the post players to set high screens for Williams at the top of the key, helping open up more holes under the basket and allowing Esho to capitalize on with easy buckets at the rim.
Esho feels his skill set fits well against the zone, as his athleticism was too much for the Eagles’ big men to handle.
“It was something that Chaz pointed out during the game,” Esho said of running the baseline behind the zone. “He told me to just keep running the baseline, so did Coach.”
Kellogg likes the option of Esho off the bench and feels his athleticism “is what separates him.”
“We go from being not so athletic when we start the game, or an OK athletic team, to when he comes in, all of a sudden we become very athletic,” Kellogg said. “One guy can make a difference with his energy and his ability to get on the front of the press.”
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.