UMass blows out Southern Illinois on Thanksgiving

Minutemen win by 22

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(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

Six days removed from opening the Las Vegas Holiday Invitational with an embarrassing home loss to Howard, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team turned in its finest performance of the season with an 84-62 win over Southern Illinois on Thursday.

Behind a balanced scoring attack — four different players reached double figures — and excellent transition offense, combined with smothering defense and strong rebounding, the Minutemen started on a 24-6 run and never let up, pulling out a Turkey Day blowout against a very good opponent.

“I thought we just had tremendous energy to start the game,” said UMass coach Matt McCall. “Yesterday was one of our best practices of the year. And as a coach, when you travel that far across the country, there’s always a level of concern on, would you come into practice complacent. And our guys were fired up from the beginning, and we had a terrific practice yesterday, and everything we’ve been working on coming out of the Howard game is starting to translate. Defense, rebounding, and our guys are buying into it, and we got ourselves a great win today.”

Rashaan Holloway was just about perfect on the offensive end, finishing with 16 points of 7-of-7 shooting — and hitting both of his free throws — to go along with five rebounds, three of which were on the offensive glass. The Salukis had no answer for the big man, who had a couple put-back buckets early and couldn’t miss down low.

Having struggled early in the season, sophomore Carl Pierre found his shooting touch again early on, scoring all of his 14 points and hitting 4-of-7 from 3-point range in the first half. Luwane Pipkins added 15 points and six assists, while Curtis Cobb notched nine of his 11 points in the first half.

The Minutemen led 47-20 at the break and maintained a big lead through most of the second half, eventually leading by as much as 35 when Keon Clergeot buried a three to put UMass up 61-26 midway through the second half. The game wasn’t even as close as the 22-point margin of victory, as the Salukis went on a 10-1 run in the final 1:15 to make the final score a touch more respectable.

Jonathan Laurent didn’t quite reach double-figures but finished with nine points and eight rebounds along with strong contributions on the defensive end, where the Minutemen were arguably at their strongest.

“I think our energy level was great to start the game, and a lot of it was about our defense,” McCall said. “We made a lot of threes, and this team has the capability of doing that, but it started on the defensive end of the floor. We had a focus to get out there and get stops, and it started right when the ball was thrown up, from the tip.”

McCall has stressed the importance of the defensive end all season, and the Minutemen were smothering on Thursday. A team that lacked urgency through the first few games was locked in and engaged, guys that were getting lost on screens and switches were staying with their assignments and preventing open looks, and the ceiling that McCall laid out in October — that of a top-50 defense in the country — looked like a possibility, especially with Holloway anchoring things down low like he did on Thursday.

“Rashaan Holloway’s presence defensively was the best since I’ve been here, in the last two years,” McCall said. “He did an unbelievable job of clogging up the lane, not getting too extended on his pick-and-roll coverages, and that was the best he’s played defensively, so I was really proud of him.”

With a statement win under its belt, UMass will face No. 6 Nevada — by far the biggest test of the season for the Minutemen — on Friday after the Wolf Pack beat Tulsa Thursday.

“Definitely a good win for the program right now,” Laurent said post-game on WEEI.
“Shaky start, but we’re looking up, definitely looking up. We’ve got some bright spots from this game and our last game, so we’re just going to carry that into [Friday].”

Friday’s tip-off is set for 10 p.m. — 7 p.m. local time — in Las Vegas.

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