KINGSTON, R.I.— Tre Mitchell couldn’t save the Massachusetts men’s basketball team on Tuesday, but he kept the Minutemen around for quite a while.
The freshman was electric against Rhode Island on the road, pouring in a game-high 30 points — including 17 in the second half — to keep UMass (9-14, 3-7 Atlantic 10) afloat for long stretches in a 73-67 loss to a very good Rams team.
Mitchell was just about unstoppable inside, taking URI’s Jermaine Harris and Cyril Langevine in the post time and time again. The Rams (17-5, 9-1 A-10) were forced to double team Mitchell as often as possible, as he continued to torch them in single-coverage if they left him alone.
“Honestly I think we were just trying to make it a point to force them to double team me, because for a big portion of the game they were late on their doubles or they weren’t doubling at all,” Mitchell said. “Just getting me the ball inside and forcing them to double team me create a lot more for everybody else.”
Mitchell went to work from the jump, leading all scorers with an 11-point first half. He became the focal point of UMass’ offense quickly, as his presence inside forced URI to collapse and send doubles to open up the rest of the floor.
“I think we’ve been trying to get the ball to him all season, and he’s been good down there,” junior Carl Pierre said. “So if we can run the offense through him, they’re forced to double him, we’re able to get kick out threes and the lane’s open and we can get to the basket, and it just opens up the game for our offense.”
A few jump hooks and free throws helped Mitchell establish a rhythm in the first half, but it was after the break that the Woodstock Academy product really went to work.
UMass went to their star big man every time down, throwing him the ball in the post on seven consecutive half-court possessions to start the second half. Mitchell rewarded that faith with 15 of the first 22 points the Minutemen scored coming out of the locker room, taking Harris and Langevine to the cleaners over and over.
“I mean the guy had what, 30 tonight?” Pierre said. “So if he’s going to score every basket in a four, five minute stretch then we’re going to keep dumping it down there.”
By the midway point of the second half, the double teams were immediate with a help defender flying over as soon as Mitchell caught it; it didn’t matter. He spun away from the help and made some grown-man moves down low, finishing at the rim almost at will. If that lane was blocked off, he threw it to the perimeter for one of his three assists; if he lost his dribble, he threw it back out and called for it again. Despite so many touches and plenty of attention, Mitchell finished without a turnover for just the second time this season.
“Honestly, I think I’ve seen [double teams] so much at this point that whenever there is one person on me it’s a field day,” Mitchell said. “When there are two people, I think I’ve just done a good job being able to be in the film room with Coach Bergeron a lot. He’s just helped me figure out ways to get out of the double team.
“It just goes back to watching film, seeing different areas, different places I can go when the doubles are coming after me, where the double’s coming from.”
Over a seven-minute stretch in the second half, the Pittsburgh native scored 11 straight points to keep URI’s lead from spiraling out of control. A Mitchell layup with 26 seconds to play cut UMass deficit to six — the Minutemen had trailed by as many as 15 just minutes earlier — but it wasn’t quite enough.
Thirty points marks Mitchell’s career high in his best game to date, as he supplemented his dazzling scoring night with a great evening defensively. His scoring was extremely efficient — shooting 13-of-20 from the field — and his ball security was as good as its been all season, as he took on one of UMass’ best opponents of the season and dragged his team kicking and screaming into a competitive night.
“Tre made tremendous moves down there,” said UMass coach Matt McCall. “A lot of the time there was probably some contact and he goes in and he goes up and finishes plays.”
Tuesday’s big night pushes Mitchell’s scoring average in conference play to 10.1 points per game, third in the A-10 behind URI’s Fatts Russell and Dayton’s Obi Toppin.
Mitchell has had occasional issues with all the attention he gets as the focal point of UMass’ offense this season; on Tuesday he rose to the occasion and then some, looking like a star in the process.
Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.