Dibaji Walker’s breakout night leads UMass men’s basketball past St. Joe’s

Sophomore posts career-high 22


Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

For Dibaji Walker, Wednesday night was a long time in the making.

After missing the first 12 games of the season awaiting an eligibility waiver from the NCAA after transferring from Cleveland State in the summer, Walker has given the Massachusetts men’s basketball team some decent minutes with some flashes on scoring potential. He put it all together against Saint Joseph’s, exiting to big reception after pouring in a career-high 22 points as UMass (9-12, 3-5 Atlantic 10) rolled to a 91-76 win.

“Felt really good to let loose and just do what I usually do,” Walker said. “I’ve been selling my team short with what I’ve been capable of the last couple games. So I’m happy about it, but I just feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The sophomore transfer had only put up four points per game this season, his season-high coming with a 10-point outing against George Washington, but Wednesday was his breakout — Walker shot a very efficient 9-for-13 and scored in all manner of ways. Inside, outside, pull-up jumpers and dunks, the 6-foot-9, hyper-versatile Walker made use of every inch of the floor offensively.

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

“He’s so talented offensively,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “As a coach, you always want to put in a new player, or how can we move the floor, or you see an NBA set or whatever it is; you’ve just got to keep it simple with him and get him the ball in spots where he can be successful… he got in the middle of that zone and he made some plays, he got a steal in the press and dunked one off vert to get himself going.

“You’ve just got to keep it simple for him, but there’s no question that his talent level offensively is through the roof.”

After checking in four minutes into the first half, Walker got going early, spotting up from the corner and hitting a three to start his night. A minute later he found that soft spot in the middle of the St. Joe’s zone and pulled up from the elbow to hit again. Late in the half he got up to throw down a dunk off a Kolton Mitchell steal in the press, before cutting back door and finishing through contact to lead all UMass scorers with nine going into halftime.

The second half was more of the same — soft spot in the zone, pull up, money. Walker made that sequence work three times in a row, killing the Hawks (4-17, 0-8 A-10) from the same spot over and over. The next time he caught it there, Lorenzo Edwards had to respect the jumper and bit on a pump fake; Walker drove by him and finished at the rim through contact, finishing the and-one to get to 18 on the night.

On the next possession, Walker went to his favorite spot one more time, with Anthony Longpre playing him tight. One dribble left, a lightning spin move right and Walker was at the basket; Longpre could only watch.

John Buggs, out for the season but still UMass’ most vocal bench presence, yelled, “that was cute Baji! That was real cute!”

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

“Yeah I did [hear him], I did,” Walker said with a laugh. “I didn’t expect myself to be so wide open, I thought there would’ve been some help I had to finish over. That was crazy, I felt like I should’ve dunked that one.”

Two free throws brought Walker’s total on the night to 22, and his breakout performance was complete.

“I couldn’t be happier for Dibaji,” McCall said. “He’s been through a lot since he’s been here. He’s been through a lot in his college career, to go through a coaching change, to have an enormous amount of his teammates exit a program, he’s sitting there in limbo not knowing what to do. He comes here out of familiarity with some people and doesn’t know whether or not he’s going to play, then he gets eligible and we chuck him in there the next day against Akron.

“He keeps battling. He comes to practice every day, he’s got an unbelievable amount of effort in practice and to see him finally put it together and have a good night offensively, I was really, really happy for him.”

Walker’s potential emergence as a scoring threat could be vital for a UMass team that’s desperately needed a third scoring option — after Tre Mitchell and Carl Pierre — to bolster the team offensively.

“That’s what [McCall]’s been telling me since day one, that’s got to be my role,” Walker said. “I’ve got to be that third or fourth guy.”

Six months after a tumultuous situation at Cleveland State forced him to transfer, four weeks after his first appearance for the Minutemen after a three-month wait for a waiver, Dibaji Walker checked out with 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting to a big ovation from the Mullins Center crowd, his long-awaited moment.

“It felt good,” Walker said. “It felt really good. I’ve been waiting for a long time. And like you said, it’s been brewing, it’s about time.

“It’s been due.”

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