UMass tops Miami (Ohio) despite inconsistent play

By Mark Chiarelli

A quick glance at the box score of the No. 23 Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s 73-65 victory over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday wouldn’t raise much concern.

UMass led for 36 straight minutes, Chaz Williams scored 18 points and tallied eight assists and the Minutemen even benefited from strong bench play, as Maxie Esho and Trey Davis combined for 26 points. But at 12-1, with victories over several strong out-of-conference opponents, UMass has created a lofty set of expectations.

Ordinary isn’t good enough anymore. And Saturday night, in front of 5,834 fans at Mullins Center, Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg wanted more out of his team.

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

“I didn’t think we played as good as we can,” Kellogg said. “I thought Miami played a good game out there. They picked us apart a little bit on some basic basketball stuff. I didn’t think we played with the energy across the board that we need to.”

The Minutemen opened the game with four straight turnovers before Raphiael Putney and Chaz Williams hit back-to-back 3-pointers. Much of the first half offense centered around the play of Williams and center Cady Lalanne. The duo combined for 18 points in the half.

But the RedHawks stayed within striking distance, ending the half trailing 36-32 despite UMass pushing its lead to as much as nine with just 1:49 to go in the half. The Minutemen struggled to win battles for loose balls and couldn’t string together stops on defense.

“I thought we were into it,” Kellogg said.

“Sometimes when you don’t make the right basketball plays it takes away your energy. You want to make the good pass, the good play, the good shot and finish your plays. You want to get energy and feed off yourselves and each other.”

The most consistent source of energy came from Esho, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half. The most aggressive player in the team’s press defense and an active presence in the paint offensively, Esho was instrumental in preserving UMass’ second half lead. At one point, he scored eight straight points as the Minutemen’s lead ballooned to 51-40 with 9:32 remaining.

Yet Miami chipped away at the lead, cutting it to as little as six points with 2:53 to go. But a Sampson Carter layup on the following possession pushed the lead back to eight and effectively put the RedHawks away.

While it wasn’t pretty for the Minutemen, it was just enough.

“We came into the game thinking we have to win this game and we have to play hard, coach has been preaching that all week.” Lalanne said. “So we came in ready to play hard. (There were) some little mistakes we made that kept them in the game.”

Lalanne, who finished with 12 points, grabbed just six rebounds, a figure well below his season average of 9.8 boards. The battle for rebounding and loose balls around the rim was a struggle for UMass, which was outrebounded 34-27.

“We gotta up our game,” Kellogg said. “To get out-rebounded by anybody is really not acceptable at this point. We should be a better rebounding team with all our supposed size and length and athleticism.”

One of the points of emphasis for Kellogg during preparation for Saturday’s game was getting back to basics defensively. As the season wears on, increased aggressiveness in both the press and half court will be imperative to the Minutemen’s success.

Despite forcing 18 turnovers, Williams feels there’s still room for improvement.

“We just have to play better on defense,” he said. “That’s where we hang our hats at is on defense, so if we’re not getting stops the offense isn’t going to move as smoothly.”

As a result, UMass went through stretches of ineffectiveness offensively. Putney, Sampson Carter and Derrick Gordon combined for just 17 points. With an in-conference matchup on Wednesday against Saint Joseph’s, Kellogg both knows and expects his team will need a better effort.

“It’s nice that you win a game, you go to 12-1 and people are (saying) ‘you know, that wasn’t good enough,’” he said.

“That’s nice, that makes you feel good because you realize that you’ve got a chance to do something and we feel the same way. That wasn’t to the level that we want to be at, we want to be better than that in all aspects of the game.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli