La Salle up first for UMass in A-10 tournament

Minutemen are 1-1 against the Explorers this season


(Collegian file photo)

By Amin Touri , Assistant Sports Editor

With the Atlantic 10 Tournament opening in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, the uphill climb for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team begins with a rubber match.

Seeded 13th after finishing the season 5-13 in conference play, the Minutemen will take on 12th-seeded La Salle in the first round, having gone 1-1 against the Explorers (13-18, 7-11 A-10).

It’s the third meeting between the two teams, but coach Matt McCall doesn’t see this matchup as all that familiar; Wednesday will be the first time that La Salle will boast its full complement of weapons.

“ [We] haven’t played their full team though,” McCall said. “First time we played them no B.J. Johnson, second time no Pookie Powell. I think they’re one of the more talented teams in our leagues – those two guys especially.”

Johnson missed the first matchup with an ankle issue, while Powell was out for the rematch with a knee injury. They’re both expected to play Wednesday, with Johnson especially posing all sorts of problems for UMass.

Johnson is a nightmare down low, averaging 20.1 points and eight rebounds a game in conference play this season. He can step outside and fire away too, shooting 41 percent from 3-point land this year.

“Every time I watch B.J., I get more and more impressed with him,” said McCall. “The guy looks and moves like an NBA player, he can score in so many different ways off the block post ups.”

Powell is no slouch either, having averaged 16.7 points and 5.2 assists in 16 conference games this season. The two form one of the league’s best inside-outside duos, the crown jewels of a talented Explorer team.

The Minutemen, however, aren’t planning a short trip to the nation’s capital.

“I told them I’m packing all my suits, all my shirts, all my ties,” McCall said. “I plan on being there for a while –  and it starts with me and my staff having a belief. But I think these guys want to continue to play. Obviously we have to play terrific on Wednesday to win the game against one of the more talented teams in our league, but our guys are ready to continue; no one’s ready to go home.”

The first meeting between the two was an 86-79 OT win for UMass, the night of Luwane Pipkins’ record-breaking 44-point outburst. The return trip was a less successful venture for the Minutemen, who fell flat in Philadelphia.

“I think it was a tale of two games for us,” McCall said. “I thought we didn’t play hard there, we didn’t compete. We didn’t affect any passes, we didn’t affect any shots, at no point were they under any level of duress. I think when we got down here at home, we had an unbelievable amount of fight and resilience. But we haven’t played B.J. and Pookie this year, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The path for UMass is fairly clear, at least through Friday. A win this Wednesday sets up another rubber match with George Mason on Thursday; a win there will send the Minutemen to the quarterfinals against Saint Joseph’s.

But for now, the focus stays on Johnson, Powell and La Salle.

“I’m always confident in us,” freshman Carl Pierre said. “I think we’re good enough and capable enough to beat anyone in the conference.  I think we just need to take it game-by-game, play-by-play and just try to move on.”

Tip off on Wednesday is at 6 p.m. This year’s A-10 Tournament takes place at the Capital One Center in Washington, D.C.

Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.