UMass basketball looking for momentum as season nears end

Minutemen running out of time to earn bye in A-10 tournament

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UMass basketball looking for momentum as season nears end

Photo by Joe Frank.

Photo by Joe Frank.

Photo by Joe Frank.

Photo by Joe Frank.

By Thomas Haines, Collegian Staff

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Two games out of the ninth seed in the Atlantic 10 with four games to play, time is running out for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team to earn a bye in the conference tournament.

Despite picking up its third conference win Saturday to move out of the A-10 cellar, beating Saint Joseph’s in dramatic fashion, UMass (10-17, 3-11 A-10) now hosts third-seeded Dayton (18-9, 10-4 A-10) on Tuesday night with just four games remaining to make a run up the standings.

“Saturday will have nothing to do with Tuesday,” coach Matt McCall said. “Completely different styles of how they play, with [Dayton’s] spread pick-and-roll motion, very similar to us, and St. Joe’s five-out motion. Very different styles.”

The similarities between Dayton and UMass can be traced back to the coaching ties. McCall and Dayton coach Anthony Grant spent six years together as assistants under Billy Donovan at Florida, and the result has been very evenly matched games. The three games between them since McCall was hired at UMass have all been decided by five or fewer points, and all three went to overtime.

To McCall, the familiarity doesn’t make the matchup more exciting.

“I didn’t enjoy it as an assistant when [Grant] was at Alabama or Donnie Jones was at UCF, and I enjoy it less as a head coach,” McCall said. “I want to see him do well, and I want to do well, and that’s what makes things like this difficult. But at the end of the day, the ball’s going to get thrown up in the air and we’re going to go out and compete.”

Although UMass has struggled throughout A-10 play, the Minutemen took Dayton down to the wire back on Jan. 13. The Flyers pulled away after UMass tied the game with a minute and a half to go.

Since then, McCall has repeatedly turned over the UMass lineup in an effort to spark the Minutemen. Only two of the starters from that Jan. 13 game started against St. Joe’s, while leading scorer Luwane Pipkins is expected to miss Tuesday’s game after re-aggravating a hamstring injury.

Against St. Joe’s, sophomore Carl Pierre continued his energetic month with several crucial threes down the stretch, while redshirt junior Jonathan Laurent, relegated to the bench earlier in A-10 play, scored 24 points and pulled down eight rebounds to lead UMass’ furious comeback.

“I think [Laurent] was fully engaged on both ends of the floor,” McCall said. “There’s times he hasn’t been in league play, and those times he’s struggled, or we’ve struggled. And I thought Saturday he pieced it all together.”

Despite the win, the fact that UMass needed to mount a 19-point comeback against St. Joe’s was a discouraging sign after the Minutemen appeared to have turned the corner on defense. Since a 54-51 victory over Davidson on Feb. 9, UMass has given up at least 79 points in three consecutive games.

McCall pointed to early defensive breakdowns for the recent struggles.

“We’ve really got to dig in and get stops,” McCall said. “That’s back-to-back games we just haven’t gotten stops in the first half. George Washington’s offensive numbers were not through the roof, we couldn’t find a way to get a stop in that half. St. Joe’s was a good offensive team, but man, zone, it didn’t matter. They were just scoring at will. We’ve got to find a way to get stops early in the game, and then piece both halves together.”

Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Mullins Center.

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected]and followed on Twitter @thainessports.