UMass men’s basketball looks to build off momentum gained at Vegas tournament

Minutemen fell to No. 6 Nevada in tournament championship

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(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

By Thomas Johnston, Assistant Sports Editor

After a road trip to Las Vegas, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team returns to the Mullins Center Wednesday with a new attitude.

The Minutemen (4-3) made it to the Championship round of the Las Vegas Holiday Invitational, falling to No. 6 Nevada. While the result wasn’t what they wanted, the fight they showed against one of college basketball’s best teams was what head coach Matt McCall was looking for.

“We got better last week,” McCall said. “We improved as a team, we improved as a program. The disappointing part is if we played as hard as we did against Southern Illinois and Nevada, we would probably be sitting at 6-1 right now. That’s no disrespect to the teams that beat us, they beat us fair and square, but we just had a different edge to us out there.”

The main issues with the Minutemen before the Vegas trip surrounded rebounding and defense. Both of those fall under the category of effort plays, and were the main focus for UMass in the tournament.

The rebounding was much improved, with the Minutemen holding a plus 10 advantage in rebounds against Southern Illinois and only losing the rebounding edge by five against the Wolf Pack.

Sophomore Carl Pierre also felt his team had a different edge to them out west.

“I feel like we came out there and the improvements we tried to emphasize in practice before going to Vegas showed,” Pierre said. “Rebounding, putting an emphasis on the defensive end, I think that definitely showed in Vegas and we came out with a lot of energy and passion.”

The energy on the defensive end of the floor showed against the Salukis, as UMass held them to just 20 points in the first half and just 41.8 percent from the field throughout the game.

Nevada was a different animal, as the Wolf Pack shot north of 60 percent from the field, but that wasn’t due to a lackadaisical effort from the Minutemen defense.

Still, McCall felt his team could have made a few more defensive stops, especially early, to change the game against Nevada.

“We were right there for 32 minutes,” McCall said. “There’s no moral victories. If we could have done three different things better, we probably could have won the game. A big key was the stop we didn’t get at the end of the first half. It was a five-point game and they score at the buzzer and that gives you momentum going into the locker room. We just couldn’t get that stop in the second half to get it into striking distance.”

One area McCall was pleased with was the way point guard Luwane Pipkins was able to get everyone in the offense involved. As UMass’ leading scorer, Pipkins is the guy the Minutemen go to when they need a basket, but he was able to set teammates up for good looks at the rim and get guys touches to give them confidence within the offense.

One of the players who benefited from Pipkins’ attacking was guard Keon Clergeot. The defensive stopper was able to drill three three-pointers against the Wolfpack, giving UMass another scoring option at the guard spot.

“I was proud of Keon this weekend,” McCall said. “I thought he grew and got better individually this weekend. He defended, he made open shots and took good shots.”

The Minutemen offense is at its best when they are moving the ball, and is something McCall hopes to see continue as the season progresses.

“When you saw us play on offense against Southern Illinois and Nevada, the ball was moving,” McCall said. “I credit Luwane a lot, he’s doing a tremendous job of getting in the lane and not forcing things and finding his teammates. We made 30 threes in two games which is a lot.”

UMass hopes to build off the momentum gained in Las Vegas when Quinnipiac comes to Amherst on Wednesday.

Thomas Johnston can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @TJ__Johnston.