UMass relies on strong defense to overcome Rhode Island

By Patrick Strohecker

Raphiael Putney defends URI's Xavier Munford, who was slowed down in the second half after having a strong first half Thursday night. (Cade Belisle/Collegian)
Raphiael Putney defends URI’s Xavier Munford, who was slowed down in the second half after having a strong first half Thursday night. (Cade Belisle/Collegian)

NEW YORK — Massachusetts men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg challenged his team with a stern message at halftime after his players allowed Rhode Island to shoot 61 percent from the floor in the first half.

“how can a team shoot 60 percent?” Kellogg asked his team. “This is crazy. This is not our identity, this is not who we are. So if you guys would like to continue to play, then go out and take it to them.”

They responded with a tenacious second half. And it was the defense, not the offense, that propelled UMass to its 65-61 win over the Rams. The Minutemen held URI to just one field over the game’s final nine minutes, 50 seconds on a meaningless layup from Xavier Munford with 3.7 seconds left to play.

All season long, UMass has known when to ratchet up the defensive pressure, and Thursday night was no different. As the game progressed and the physicality escalated, UMass’ defense rose to the occasion, forcing URI into tough shots.

“We all knew what we didn’t do in the first half, we knew we had to guard up,” Maxie Esho said. “It was the difference between the first half and the second half, we just started to guard and we all made a commitment to guarding.”

Esho has brought energy off the bench for the Minutemen all season long, primarily channeling that energy into his defense. Thursday’s game was no different, as he came away with a monstrous block that kept the Rams in their scoring drought and also came down with seven rebounds.

“With his energy and the way he came out to play, guys didn’t want him to be the only one out there doing it, so guys jumped on his shoulders and followed his lead,” senior Chaz Williams said.

UMass’ pressure in the second half kept URI on its heels, not allowing it to get out and run like it did so much in the first half. And with a young team, Rams’ coach Danny Hurley felt that it was that pressure that ultimately got to his team.

“When they got really, really physical in the full court and in the half court, it rattled us,” he said. “We were executing very, very well. … They stepped up their intensity level and we didn’t play through the physicality. We could’ve done a better job.”

In the first half, the Minutemen only shot 28 percent from the field and found themselves down by eight after 20 minutes. While the deficit was large, it could’ve been much worse for UMass had it not been for a defense that forced nine turnovers.

Williams knew that the UMass offense was eventually going to wake up, but it was going to be up to the defense to fuel the fire to keep pressing forward.

“We knew our shots weren’t following, so we couldn’t allow them to score and allow them to keep their lead going,” Williams said. “So, we just wanted to go out there and make a defensive stand and we usually know that every time we play the defense were capable of, it always leads to easy offense.”

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_Strohecker.