Preston Santos, Dibaji Walker help lift UMass men’s basketball over Saint Louis

Secondary scoring key Tuesday

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Amin Touri, Editor in Chief

Turns out, Tre Mitchell could get by with a little help from his friends.

While the Massachusetts men’s basketball team needed every bit of their star freshman’s 24-point outing in a 67-63 win over Saint Louis on Tuesday, double-digit scoring nights from freshman Preston Santos and sophomore Dibaji Walker were the boost UMass (11-15, 5-8 Atlantic 10) needed to pick up a big win at home.

As Mitchell struggled to get going early, Santos and Walker had to pick up the slack, combining for 17 first-half points while Mitchell went to the locker room with just two.

Santos was the first to get going, hitting two threes to open the game — an unusual start for a guy who hasn’t taken more than three triples in a game all season, but it was the confidence boost he needed early.

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

“Even yesterday, I was down on myself in practice, I was missing wide open shots — shoot, I even airballed some,” Santos said. “But coach [Matt McCall] told me at the end of practice: ‘No one’s telling you not to shoot. No one’s telling you not to be confident. Don’t second guess yourself, because if you second guess yourself it’s probably not going in.”

Walker entered six minutes in and immediately went to work, catching the ball on the baseline, facing up SLU’s Hasahn French and knocking down a one-legged fadeaway — Dirk Nowitzki-style — to get himself going after less than a minute.

Through the middle portion of the first half, Walker’s contributions came on the other end, as he was as energetic on defense and on the boards as he’s been all season. He picked up three rebounds in the first half and challenged a few shots at the rim, helping drive a UMass team that really struggled through some early stretches.

Carl Pierre, cold-shooting of late, was just 1-for-6 in the first half — with the shots not falling, he made his impact elsewhere.

“I started out the game a little flat,” Walker said. “Energy-wise, not necessarily offensively. Carl stopped me, that big-brother role — he said, ‘I’m not hearing you, what’s up with your energy?’ I wasn’t talking, I was playing hard but I wasn’t fully engaged into it, almost going through the motions. He said that to me, and he said right then and there, ‘when you get the ball, go to work. Lock someone down. I need to hear you talk your stuff.’

“He got me going from an energy perspective.”

With Mitchell still struggling and UMass facing a 14-point deficit with five minutes left in the first, Walker spent the next 90 seconds dragging the Minutemen back into it. The sophomore grabbed an offensive rebound, broke out a right-to-left crossover to shake Jordan Goodwin and finished through traffic inside to cut the gap to 12. On the next possession he caught it on the wing and never hesitated, burying a three to make it nine.

“Dibaji, you can see his talent level,” McCall said. “The move he made on the left side of the floor was all world. Just watching him shoot it, it looks good coming off his hands.”

Walker grabbed the defensive rebound on the other end, ran up the floor and drilled a stepback jumper moving to his right to conclude a personal 7-0 run, halving a 14-point deficit in a minute and 24 seconds.

“When I saw Tre was struggling I knew I had to do something,” Walker said. “I went in, rebounded, defended and when coach called my number, got the buckets I could.”

Santos helped cut the deficit back down to seven late, snagging a steal in the press and laying it in to send the Minutemen into halftime trailing 35-28, minutes after the game seemed to be spiraling out of control.

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

“Those two guys kept us in the game with their offense,” McCall said. “Those two guys kept us in it.”

Santos opened the second half with another three — he was 3-of-4 from deep on the night — and cut baseline for tough dunk through traffic from a Mitchell feed as the big man was heating up. It brought Santos to 13 on the night, as his offensive contribution was more than enough for Mitchell to handle the rest.

Walker wasn’t quite done — after leaking out in transition he caught a pass from Samba Diallo and broke out the euro-step to get inside, finishing at the rim to bring UMass within five. With 6:38 to play, SLU doubled Mitchell and left Walker open at the top of the key — one Woodstock Academy graduate found another, and Walker’s second three of the night gave UMass a 3-point lead.

As Mitchell continued to piece together a masterful 22-point second half, he still needed a little help with double- and triple-teams coming his way time and time again. With just under two minutes to play, the Billikens worried a bit too much about Mitchell on a switch, and Pierre — he of 15 percent shooting from three in the last six games, 1-of-7 from the field on the night — had space at the top of the key to catch and shoot with teams tied at 62-62.

“I knew it was going in,” Walker said. “I called it right beside [UMass assistant coach Tony] Bergeron, I said ‘that one’s money.’ And that was big time, too.”

Pierre drilled it. UMass 65, Saint Louis 62.

“Carl deserves to make it,” McCall said. “And when it left his hands — he said something. I couldn’t really make it out. He may have said ‘get in,’ or ‘it’s in,’ he said something. But Carl, that’s our leader, man. Carl’s never going to stop shooting, if he stops shooting he’s got to come out. He’s struggled shooting the ball these last six games, maybe that one got him going.”

Mitchell’s huge scoring night dragged UMass back into the game in the second half and he’ll likely earn most of the headlines; but Santos and Walker kept the Minutemen in it early when Mitchell was struggling, and with the game on the line, Pierre stepped up and hit with the game hanging in the balance.

“That was a big shot,” McCall said. “Probably one of the bigger ones of his career. When it went in, I was just happy for him. He’s in the gym; we didn’t have school yesterday, he’s in there in the morning, he’s in there at night, he’s the first one at shootaround… he deserved to make that shot.”

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