Sean East leads UMass basketball to second-half comeback win over Fairfield

East finishes with 14 points, seven assists


Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

With 13 minutes to play in the second half against Fairfield, Sean East was outnumbered.

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team trailed by two, four minutes after the Minutemen faced a 10-point deficit. They’d started the comeback, but East was left as the lone man back as Fairfield had a 2-on-1 on the fast break.

The freshman point guard showed towards the rim and anticipated the pass to his left, flashing back to the cutter for a steal. He pushed the ball up the court and threw a perfect bounce pass to Preston Santos on the break, and Santos laid it in to tie the game, a bucket East created all on his own.

It was one of the highlights of a strong afternoon for East, who helped bring the offense back to life in the second half after UMass (2-0) struggled into the half trailing 31-24. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven assists and five rebounds in an all-around performance beyond his years.

“I told [East] in the locker room after the game, I’m not letting up on you, because you’ve got a chance to be a special player,” said UMass coach Matt McCall. “He’s going to continue to grow up in front of our eyes here and play a lot — obviously with Kolton’s injury now, that’s a lot on his shoulders. He stepped up in the second half, played a terrific floor game, got guys the ball in the spaces they needed to be successful, and I was really proud of him.”

When the Minutemen really started to stagnate offensively in the first half, East was their only saving grace — one hesitation dribble froze Vincent Eze and East strolled past him for a layup midway through the first half, and a few minutes later he weaved through the Fairfield defense on the break, bringing the ball back out to the corner before quickly changing direction and driving baseline for a floater.

East’s fingerprints were all over the second-half comeback. A floater in the lane early brought UMass within seven, before East sparked the biggest momentum swing of the afternoon. TJ Weeks, who’d exploded for 23 points in the opener on Tuesday, finished the first half without a point, as did Carl Pierre, the team’s best returning scorer.

East threw a perfect pass for Weeks cutting to the corner, and Weeks buried his first three of the game to cut the Fairfield lead back to seven. East grabbed a long rebound, drove left, sealed a defender and dumped it to an open Weeks on the wing. The sharpshooting freshmen hit again, and the lead had been cut from 10 to just four in less than a minute.

On the following possession, East ran a pick and roll with Tre Mitchell and got all the way to the rim, gliding in for an easy layup and the deficit was down to two. A minute later came that fast break, East grabbed the steal, threw a beautiful bounce pass for Santos, and the game was tied.

“Just trying to find my teammates, stay locked in,” East said. “Coach [McCall] told me during a timeout, he said ‘I need you, I need you to run the team,’ and it kind of rejuvenated me and I just went out there and tried to do it.”

One possession later, East hit Weeks curling off a screen again, and when the 3-pointer went down UMass had the lead for the first time since the early minutes.

The Minutemen trailed by nine with just over 16 minutes to play — East either scored or assisted on the next seven UMass baskets, and the Minutemen were right back in it.

Pierre couldn’t get going through most of the game, and East had to get him back into it. A great contest on one end forced a miss, and East wrestled the ball away from Fairfield center Wassef Methnani. He pushed the ball up court and caught the Stags backpedaling, but he waited them out, giving Pierre a moment to get free on the wing. East him for a wide-open three, and though Pierre missed it, it was his best look of the day.

East forced another turnover a minute later and sliced the floor, dragging a defender with it before flipping it to Pierre in the corner. This time, Pierre drilled it, his first bucket of the game, and UMass led by two. The Minutemen never trailed again.

“We needed them,” East said. “You could tell out there, me and Tre were just trying to run the team in the first half, but I told [Weeks and Pierre] at halftime, ‘I’m going to keep on coming to you.” Carl actually told me, when he had missed that first one, ‘come right back to me, I’m [going to] hit it,’ and he hit it from the corner.”

Having breathed new life into UMass’ offense and single-handedly dragged the team’s two best shooters back into the game, East had one more job — with 1:07 to go and UMass leading 60-58, he was sent to the free throw line with the game hanging in the balance.

“I’ve been here before,” said East. “We work on free throws every day, in my workouts with all the coaches, after workouts, after being tired, I’ve got to go the line and make 10 in a row, make 20 in a row, I do that every day.”

He hit both, and the Minutemen escaped with a 62-60 win.

“I told him in the timeout that I called there, he was getting pretty fired up, and I said listen, that starts with you.” McCall said. “You can get as fired up as you want right now, but you’re our point guard and you’re running our team and it starts with you.

“With all that, and he makes the two free throws with the game on the line? Very, very impressed, and proud of him.”

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