UMass men’s basketball team shows defensive promise against UMass Lowell

Minutemen force 18 turnovers

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UMass men’s basketball team shows defensive promise against UMass Lowell

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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The Massachusetts men’s basketball team showed a total team effort defensively in its 79-64 win over UMass Lowell Tuesday night.

Following a sub-par defensive showing against Western New England last week, the Minutemen (1-0) proved that their press defense can be effective on Tuesday. Against the River Hawks (0-1), UMass played with tenacious energy and really clamped down on UML’s ability to bring the ball up the court and get set to run its offense.

“I thought we were — with the press and everything that’s going on — I thought we were locked in and focused,” center Djery Baptiste said. “Obviously, there’s a lot we can improve on but that’s my job. I got to protect the basket.”

The Minutemen excelled when they were able to be athletic and active. When the River Hawks inbounded the ball, both guards immediately jumped on the receiver to force a trap. Samba Diallo and Preston Santos each did an effective job whenever they were the third defender in that mix, denying the second UML guard from being an outlet on that pass.

“I thought the press was really effective,” UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette said. “We usually play well against pressure and for some reason we didn’t tonight. That really kind of kept us off-balance.”

The press was effective more times than it wasn’t, but in the latter case, the half-court defense really held things together for UMass. The Minutemen were able to force 18 turnovers and most of those came from their guards hounding UML ball handlers on the perimeter.

UMass was also effective defending in the paint. Baptiste finished the game with four blocks and was altering shots all over in the 16 minutes that he played. Tre Mitchell, while inconsistent at times, finished with two blocks and two steals and was also altering shots at the rim.

“The one thing that this pressing does is that I think it makes you a better half-court defensive team too,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “Because you’re flying around and all of a sudden, you get caught in pick-and-roll coverage and there’s a rotation and guys are flying around right now and closing down gaps.”

UMass has a lot of size and high-motor players and they used it to their advantage, as the Minutemen had 11 steals in the game. The tenacity of their guards on the perimeter and the energy that they played with coming out of the press muddied things up on the perimeter and forced UML to go into the paint — which wasn’t exactly ideal with the size UMass offered in the middle.

The guards made pick-and-roll a nightmare for the River Hawks. Keon Clergeot was infectious defensively, Kolton Mitchell made big plays and Carl Pierre and TJ Weeks more than held up their end on that side of the ball. All of them were aggressive early with the ball handlers and forced many to make a mistake or simply pass the ball to other congested parts of the floor.

“Being aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage I thought was really good,” McCall said. “I thought we were pretty good with our switches. We like to switch one through four – I thought we were pretty good there.”

Entering the game, the Minutemen had to keep an eye on River Hawks forward Josh Gantz. Gantz’s ability to stretch the floor plays counter to UMass’ pressing style and if he had gotten his shot going, it could’ve proved disastrous for the Minutemen defensively.

UMass forced Gantz — who finished with just five points — into early foul trouble and it allowed the Minutemen to clamp down defensively early and not allow UML to get into a flow offensively. The River Hawks finished the game shooting just 38 percent from the field and 28 percent from three.

“I was very concerned going into the game about Gantz popping back, shooting threes,” McCall said. “Him slipping pick-and-rolls and different things like that was a major, major concern for me. I thought our guys did a really good job. He got in foul trouble there but he only had five points.”

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