Exploring for revenge, UMass clashes with La Salle

By Jackson Alexander

The window of opportunity for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team to make a statement in the Atlantic 10 continues to shrink, as the Minutemen have just five conference games remaining on their regular season schedule.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

However, they will have the opportunity to bolster their resume in back-to-back home games against La Salle (17-9, 6-5 A-10) and Xavier (16-9, 7-4 A-10) starting this weekend.

The Minutemen play the Explorers on Saturday, then host the Musketeers on Tuesday.

Last Saturday, UMass (18-7, 7-4 A-10) blew an opportunity to register its first signature win on the road, as it fell to Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia.

The Minutemen contested throughout most of the game, but a late run by the Hawks allowed them to cruise to a 73-62 victory.

Now, they will attempt to regroup and try to defeat a La Salle team that already beat UMass, 82-75, on Jan. 8, in Philadelphia.

In that game, the Minutemen were unable to do two things that led to the defeat – compete in the first half and defend the 3-pointer.

UMass had its worst half of the season as La Salle put up a whopping 51 points in the first half.

The Minutemen were anemic on offense during the half, as they shot 39 percent from the field and turned the ball over 16 times. They scored just 25 points, putting themselves in a monstrous 26-point halftime hole.

As far as finding a way to correct its mistakes, UMass coach Derek Kellogg started with turnovers.

“We can’t turn the ball over 19 times I think would be the first thing, and [we can’t] have 16 at the half,” said Kellogg.

Despite the disparity at the break, UMass rallied and made the game close. They whittled the lead down to five points, but only 24 seconds remained on the clock and not enough time was left to make up the deficit.

La Salle canned 12 3-pointers in the game, with 10 coming in the first half alone.

The Explorers featured a four-guard lineup – a formation the Minutemen faced earlier in the season against NJIT – in the game, which stymied UMass.

“Playing four guards is tough because we like to press and run, and if we’re doing that and they have three point guards on the floor, I think sometimes that might be counterproductive,” said Kellogg.

Earl Pettis (19 points), Ramon Galloway (18 points), Tyreek Duren (12 points) and Sam Mills (11 points) lit up the Minutemen. They knocked down 10 of the team’s 12 3-pointers, as reserve guard D.J. Peterson collected the other two.

“I’ll be a little careful to see how much we press and how much we actually run versus trying to jam it inside and also try to beat them up physically,” said Kellogg.

While taking the ball inside may work, the Explorers have a few able bodies down low.

Freshman forward Jerrell Wright has averaged 13 points and nearly five rebounds per game over his last seven contests.

Devon White and Steve Zack also provide depth inside, but hardly provide the post presence that Wright does.

If the Minutemen are to defeat La Salle, guards Chaz Williams, Jesse Morgan, Freddie Riley and Javorn Farrell must hone in on the Explorers’ four-guard attack.

The last time these two teams met, Williams and Morgan had monster games.

Williams went for 24 points, and added five assists, while Morgan put up 22 points.

The up-and-down pace the game will be played at will match the styles of the guards.

Morgan has begun taking a more prominent role in the offense as he scored 24 and 18 points, respectively, in the last two games, and has averaged 13.3 points per game in conference play.

“I think we have two or three options now that are consistently double-digit scorers … and Jesse being one of those guys I think you can put him in the books for double digits,” said Kellogg.

Dayton, Temple and Rhode Island also remain on the schedule for UMass as its pursuit for a top four seed – and a first-round bye in the A-10 tournament – continues.

The game versus the Explorers will tip off at 6 p.m. at the Mullins Center.

Jackson Alexander can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MDC_Alexander.