Second half resurgence leads UMass men’s basketball past Fairfield

Minutemen shot 60 percent from the field and from three in the second half

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Second half resurgence leads UMass men’s basketball past Fairfield

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Javier Melo, Assistant Sports Editor

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A strong second-half performance gave the Massachusetts men’s basketball team the 62-60 nailbiter win over Fairfield on Saturday

The Minutemen (2-0) fought back midway through the second half after a dismal first half performance to claim a big win on the road against a Fairfield (0-2) team that gave them their all.

“There’s going to be nights like this where we have to find ways to grind it out,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “Obviously we haven’t been very successful on the road the last two years and to find a way to win on the road, I told the guys in the tunnel ‘they’re trying to win too. They’re not going to give you the game, you have to go take it.’ It’s just part of the maturation process for this group.”

UMass struggled to string things together in the first half. At one point, there was a stretch where the Minutemen didn’t hit a field goal for seven minutes. The Minutemen ended the half shooting 9-of-25 from the field and 0-of-6 from three, trailing 31-24 at the half.

That play continued a bit into the second half before McCall was forced to make adjustments.

“The ball wasn’t going in the basket in the first half from the perimeter — from anywhere, really, and we had one offensive rebound,” McCall said. “That’s a problem. I called a timeout there early in the second half because I didn’t like our energy. I didn’t like that we were just kind of watching the ball go up in the air, not chasing them, not playing with any toughness, with any fight.”

The momentum turned in UMass’ favor four minutes into the half when freshman TJ Weeks hit a 3-pointer. Weeks followed it up on the next possession by hitting another triple, cutting Fairfield’s lead to 39-35

Following a pair of layups from Sean East and Preston Santos, Weeks stepped up again and hit a third 3-pointer, putting the Minutemen up 42-41, their first lead since the 6:23 mark of the first half.

“TJ Weeks got going and the energy level just completely in the course of the game,” McCall said.

UMass gave up the lead but East and Tre Mitchell turned things back in their favor. East made a layup and Samba Diallo finished at the rim to cut the deficit to one point. Mitchell matched a Fairfield 3-pointer with one of his own to help UMass keep pace — the big man was 2-of-4 from deep, and finished with a game-high 18 points.

Carl Pierre started the game 0-of-5 from the field but hit a big three with 4:27 remaining to put UMass up 56-54. The Minutemen never lost that lead.

Following successive baskets by Mitchell and the Stags’ Jesus Cruz, East was fouled and went to the free-throw line for a pair of tries with 1:07 to play. The freshman hit both to put UMass up 62-58.

Landon Taliaferro hit a pair of free throws and TJ Weeks missed a floater, giving Fairfield the ball with 21 seconds left.

The Minutemen hounded the offense in transition and forced the Stags to call a timeout with 4.9 seconds left. Taliaferro threw up a three, Mitchell grabbed the rebound and was fouled, and the Minutemen escaped with a 62-60 win.

UMass finished the second half shooting 14-of-23 from the field overall and 6-of-10 from three. The Minutemen also turned around their defense on the perimeter: in the first half, the Stags were 4-of-9 from three; on the second half, they were 2-of-8.

Fairfield led in the first half mostly due to their ability to find open looks from three. When those opportunities were cut down, the Stags struggled. The tenacious pressing defense found a new energy when the game swung in UMass’ favor and the defensive impact showed late, when Fairfield struggled to find clean looks at the basket.

“It was the first adversity we ever faced,” East said. “We’ve never been down like that. Coach was just telling us to ‘keep pushing, keep pushing. They’re going to wear down.’ and that’s what eventually they did.”

Javier Melo can be reached by email at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JMeloSports.