Power in paint drives Minutemen

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian staff

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The Massachusetts men’s basketball team did what winning teams do last night.

They got the ball inside. Basketball games are often decided in the low post, much like football games are won in the trenches.

The Minutemen had a difficult shooting night from the outside, but defeated Rhode Island anyway, 78-76, due to aggressive drives to the basket and a massive amount of offensive rebounds.

UMass (15-7, 4-4 Atlantic 10) undoubtedly boosted its postseason credentials with the victory last night at the Mullins Center, against a Rams team that was just three spots away from re-cracking the Top 25 in the most recent Associated Press poll.

But for the Minutemen to reach the NCAA Tournament come March – and to be a factor – they have to continue to get that inside production.

But at some point, that production needs to come from the guys that reside in the low blocks – namely Dante Milligan, Luke Bonner and Tony Gaffney.

Against URI (19-4, 5-3 A-10), it wasn’t the aforementioned trio that did the work inside, but rather Gary Forbes, Etienne Brower and even point guard Chris Lowe.

The Minutemen had a season-high 54 rebounds, including 22 on the offensive end. Milligan and Bonner combined for just four of them. Brower was exceptional, pulling down 17 rebounds – the most for any UMass player since Stephane Lasme last season against Xavier. Gary Forbes chipped in with 13 of his own.

The abundance of rebounds is the most noticeable stat in the box score, but the dominance inside wasn’t highlighted by the 54 rebounds, but rather the 46 points in the paint.

Although UMass took 27 3-point shots, Lowe and Forbes consistently drove the ball to the basket, getting good looks. And when the shots didn’t go in, someone was typically there to clean it up.

“When C-Lowe shoots up bricks, someone’s gotta go in there [to get rebounds,]” Brower joked in the press conference, seconds after Lowe took a jab at Brower, saying he was surprised he got so many rebounds because “he goofy.”

Jokes aside, the Minutemen need Milligan and Bonner to produce more in the paint – something they’ve been unable to do because of constant foul trouble.

Milligan fouled out for the ninth time this season in 22 games, committing five fouls in just 10 minutes of action. Bonner didn’t foul out – although he committed four in 11 minutes – but Gaffney did in 19 minutes on the floor.

Against URI, the Minutemen got away with it, thanks to 27 second-chance points and the 46 points in the paint. But games like this are not common for UMass, which is a team that typically struggles with rebounding and with inside scoring.

The Minutemen weren’t the only team last night that killed on the glass. The Rams had 51 of their own, and even outrebounded UMass on the offensive end, 23-22. Not having the big bodies (Milligan and Bonner) in the low post to box out hurt UMass.

The difference was that the Rams didn’t capitalize as often when they got the offensive rebounds (20 second-chance points to UMass’s 27).

Rhode Island coach Jim Baron was frustrated after the game about the rebounding situation, knowing it possibly cost his team the game.

“We had said that before the game, you know, you got to block out, even long shots, long rebounds,” he said.

In the games to come, UMass needs some of those rebounds to find the hands of Milligan and Bonner. In 15 starts this season, Bonner is sixth on the team in rebounds per game (2.7), even ranking behind Lowe. Milligan is fourth (4.9), behind Forbes, Brower and Gaffney.

On the scoring side, Milligan and Bonner combine for 11.7 points per game (Milligan 7.4, Bonner 4.2). The Minutemen get plenty of scoring from guys like Forbes, Ricky Harris and Brower, the guys in the middle just need to make bigger contributions down low.

They have to find a way to stay on the court to do it.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]