Despite dropping its fourth consecutive contest to Duquesne, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team received a surprising performance from an unlikely source Wednesday at the Mullins Center.
In 18 minutes off the bench, freshman guard Jesse Morgan tallied a team-high 14 points. Along with Morgan, sophomore forward Raphiael Putney scored 10 off the bench on a night when leading-scorer Anthony Gurley struggled to find his stroke, managing just nine points in the loss.
The absence of sophomore guard Freddie Riley, who suffered an ankle injury last game against George Washington, opened the door for Morgan to get on the court.
“It’s just confidence,” Morgan said of his outing. “It gives you confidence when you’re able to help your team and put in that situation. It gave us confidence as a whole.”
When Morgan entered the contest, UMass trailed 32-10 to the Dukes with four minutes, 57 seconds remaining in the first half. To close out the period, Morgan nailed both of his long-range efforts, taking six points into the intermission with the Minutemen trailing, 38-25.
Morgan earned more playing time in the second half, remaining on the floor for 13 minutes. He continued to be aggressive, scoring eight points on 3-for-8 shooting and nabbing two steals.
“He’s finally worked hard in practice to where he deserves some time, I’m not sure I was going to play him 18 minutes,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said of Morgan. “I told him before the game, ‘If you go in for a minute or two each half, be happy, come in, work hard and give us a little bit of a boost.’”
After biding his time, Morgan’s opportunity came after playing 30 total minutes prior to Wednesday. In his limited time, he shot 5-for-17 from the field and 1-for-9 from behind the arc. While he tallied one point off a free throw in his collegiate debut on Dec. 12 against Central Florida, his best performance of the season came against Central Connecticut on Jan. 3, when he recorded five points and hit his lone 3-pointer.
Following his transfer to UMass in the winter of 2009-10 from Seton Hall, where he signed his National Letter of Intent, Morgan became eligible to practice with the team on Dec. 19 of last year.
In high school, Morgan displayed his ability to score the ball, averaging 28 points per game for Olney High School in his native Philadelphia. That total was third-best among city-league players, and Morgan was selected First Team All-City.
While Morgan had a breakthrough performance Wednesday, he admitted he still needs to continue working and learning to be a better all-around player, especially as a freshman.
Nevertheless, his outing showed Kellogg he can trust Morgan for more minutes going forward with his versatility of playing and guarding the three guard positions.
“He gives us one more scoring option and a guy who seems to be able to drive the ball to the bucket and make plays for others,” Kellogg said.
After dropping four-straight games, the Minutemen currently stand at 13-11 overall and 5-6 in the Atlantic 10. With five games left on the regular-season schedule, Kellogg said he might switch up the game plan and allow the younger players to play and be more aggressive down the stretch, rather than trying to grind out victories.
“I’m a big fan of energy and guys that play hard,” Kellogg said. “I’m kind of at a crossroads a little bit of how I want to play here the last five games.”
Jay Asser can be reached at [email protected]