Johnston: UMass men’s basketball looks inspired after loss to Fordham

Minutemen beat conference leader Davidson Saturday


Photo by Joe Frank

By Thomas Johnston, Collegian Staff

It hasn’t been the year many expected from the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.

Coming off a rough first season under coach Matt McCall—in which he was dealt a bad hand player-wise after the debacle with players transferring out of the program—expectations grew with an influx of transfers and freshmen in year two.

Yet it’s fair to say the Minutemen haven’t lived up to those expectations. An early season loss to Howard at home seemed destined to be the low point for the UMass season, but after opening Atlantic 10 play losers of seven of its first eight, the Minutemen dropped a home game against Fordham, the bottom feeder of the conference.

UMass didn’t just lose to the Rams. It got streamrolled.

It was rock bottom.

The horizon wasn’t looking any better for the young Minutemen. Conference leaders Davidson were coming to Amherst Saturday, and without Luwane Pipkins, it looked like the odds were stacked against UMass.

But just as this season hasn’t made much sense, the Minutemen pulled out a gritty victory with a strong game behind Carl Pierre and a fadeaway bomb by Keon Clergeot to propel UMass to victory.

Scoreboard aside, the Minutemen took a step forward Saturday. The problems in the losses stemmed from effort. When they put in 100 percent on both ends of the floor, they can play with anyone, proving that with wins against Davidson, Rhode Island and Providence.

When they don’t put their best effort in, losses like Fordham, Howard and La Salle happen.

There was an excitement about the win over the Wildcats that we hadn’t seen in a while from UMass. There was McCall firing up the crowd for the first time ever when his team needed a defensive stand at the end of the game.

Rashaan Holloway, a senior who played just five minutes in the game, was revving up the Mullins Center late. The team looked connected and inspired.

After McCall declared the team not worthy of practicing at their $30 million practice facility after the Fordham loss, the team moved to the Curry Hicks Cage, the old home of the Minutemen located at the center of campus.

The Cage hasn’t been used for a game since 1993, and is now mostly occupied by squirrels that run rampant around the pipes atop the gym. It’s not the place where you would envision a Division I college basketball team practicing.

Maybe UMass got some magic from the old arena. It brought them back to the roots of basketball, where it doesn’t matter if you have a flashy new court or just two baskets and a ball.

The Cage brought life into the Minutemen and the energy translated into the Mullins Center on Saturday.

“That was a gutty performance,” McCall said after the Davidson win. “It hasn’t been the easiest of weeks, especially for our guys and practicing at odd hours over in the Cage and away from the comfort of the normal building. It hasn’t been the easiest of weeks and to come in here against the best team in the league and show that kind of resilience, I was really, really proud, especially in the second half, being down and continuing to fight.”

McCall credited the win to the practice they had the day before at the Cage, which began at 6:45 a.m. ROTC was running around the outside of the court and a fire alarm went off halfway through.

During that practice, a team consisting of Pierre, Clergeot, Unique McLean, Samba Diallo and Djery Baptiste emerged, showing a cohesiveness McCall has been looking for all season.

That group got the start against Davidson, and delivered in a big way.

“Practice was super intense,” Pierre said. “Came in there and competed early in the morning, we came out there and just got after it. Our five that played today, we were just connected, talking out there, huddling, just trying to stay on one page, whether that’s on offense or defense just talking through it and staying as connected as possible.”

UMass will continue to practice at the Cage until further notice, according to McCall. If they come out Wednesday against George Mason with the same level of compete they showed against the Wildcats, maybe they will earn the right to go back to the Champions Center in their fancy practice facility.

Or maybe they will stay at the Cage, enjoying the basics of the game of basketball.

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