Defense decisive for Minutemen

By Herb Scribner

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

For the past two contests, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s defense has played a significant role in pushing the team towards victory.

With La Salle on tap for Saturday, the Minutemen (15-11, 7-6 Atlantic 10) will be looking to continue their defensive pressure and maintain the Explorers’ (12-16, 4-9 A-10) triplet of double-digit scorers in center Aaric Murray, forward Jerrell Williams and guard Ruben Guillandeaux.

Last time the two sides met on Jan. 15 at the MassMutual Center, Murray and Williams combined for 32 points off 12-for-27 shooting.

In order to contain Murray and Williams this time, the Minutemen will look to rely on the strengths they possessed in limiting Saint Joseph’s guard Langston Galloway on Wednesday night. Galloway, who went 6-for-6 from beyond the arc in UMass’ previous meeting with SJU, was held to six points with 1-for-5 shooting from the perimeter.

Galloway wasn’t the only member of the Hawks (7-20, 2-11 A-10) struggling on Wednesday night, as the Minutemen continued to pressure the ball and force bad shots. UMass held three players to 1-for-7 shooting and held usual top performer Carl Jones to 1-for-6 shooting.

In a game that guard Gary Correia labeled as “payback,” the Minutemen appeared to be back on their feet defensively. In fact, it looked to be the polar opposite of the UMass side that was drowned out by a slew of 3-pointers earlier this month.

During the early part of February, the Minutemen couldn’t find a way to control their defense, which led to the side falling into a four-game skid against Saint Louis, SJU, George Washington and Duquesne. The string of losses saw downpours of 3-point shooting from the Billikens (10-17, 4-9 A-10) as well as a general lack to control transition baskets on the defensive end.

Things turned around on Feb. 19, when the Minutemen raised their defensive play to limit the Rams’ (17-10, 8-5 A-10) shooting to a dismal 29 percent.

“I thought we picked up our defense in the second half,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said after the URI game.

Impressively, UMass held URI to one 3-point basket throughout the contest, which came in the second half from Nikola Malesevic.

Despite playing well on the defensive end for the majority of the game, the Minutemen almost let the Rams sneak back into the game. This falls in line with something Kellogg has been looking to fix all season: stopping late-game runs by the opponents and closing out games.

“Once again, we’re going to have to wait on our late games situations,” Kellogg said.

This trend didn’t hold off at URI however, as the Minutemen carried over a top defensive performance in the rematch against the Hawks with a dominant first half performance that left SJU without a field goal for the opening 11 minutes, 31 seconds.

Holding SJU to a 30.8 shooting percentage wasn’t the only thing UMass had lined up, as the Minutemen controlled the boards with a 44-24 advantage.

Another issue UMass has suffered from in its last few games was giving up a slew of free throw opportunities. In the Minutemen’s first contest against SJU, they allowed 15 points from the charity stripe, drawing Kellogg’s ire.

“We just have to continue to play better defense for the full 35 without putting teams to the free throw line,” Kellogg said to UMass Athletics after the Feb. 5 contest against the Hawks.

Saturday’s game at La Salle will be another opportunity for the Minutemen to display a winning defense, whether it’s dominating the boards, limiting their opponent’s free throws or forcing bad shots.

With three games left in the season, and the A-10 tournament on horizon, defense will be a key piece of the game that UMass will look to work on.

Herb Scribner can be reached at [email protected]