UMass men’s basketball picks up big win over Saint Louis Tuesday

First win over SLU under coach Matt McCall

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Javier Melo, Assistant Sports Editor

A dramatic second half effort by the Massachusetts men’s basketball pushed the Minutemen to their biggest win of the season against Saint Louis.

UMass (11-15, 5-8 Atlantic 10) was good only in small doses in the first half, falling behind by as many as 16 points, but the consistent threat from outside and a big night from Tre Mitchell propelled the Minutemen to their first win over the Billikens (18-8, 7-6 A-10) under coach Matt McCall.

“I thought in the first half, the ball never changed sides of the floor and we got bad movement and Dibaji [Walker] really bailed us out to keep us in the game,” McCall said. “I thought in the second half, our offense was much better and I thought coming down the stretch, our guys did a phenomenal job of executing.”

The first half was rough for the Minutemen offensively. After jumping up to a 6-1 lead on the back of two Preston Santos 3-pointers, UMass struggled with defending the versatile offense of the Billikens. Typically, SLU tries to be physical and play inside — only averaging 33.5 percent from three this season, the Billikens are very much an inside oriented team.

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

Enter: Javonte Perkins. The junior drilled a corner three to put SLU up 11-8 five minutes into the game. He then proceeded to hit another. Then, after Yuri Collins scored, he hit his third open 3-pointer in the space of four minutes to push the lead to nine points with just over 10 minutes remaining.

Overall, SLU shot 5-of-7 from three in the first half, each of which were either wide open or softly contested. UMass, by comparison, shot 4-of-16 from three in the first half — the Minutemen were 12-of-31 overall. They’d have small bursts where Walker would piece together a couple of baskets or Santos would make a couple of plays, but there was no real consistent threat offensively. At halftime, SLU led the game 35-28.

The second half was a completely different story. Despite a slow start that saw SLU’s Jordan Goodwin get going offensively and keep the Billikens lead alive, the Minutemen rallied due to the stellar play of Mitchell. The freshman only had two points in the first half, but finished the game with 24. He hit a layup and sunk the free throw after to cut the lead to seven points, then came down and drilled a 3-pointer to cut it four early in the second half.

However, it seemed like every time UMass clawed back into the game, Goodwin hit a couple of shots to extend it right back. In fact, it wasn’t until 9:18 remaining in the game that UMass finally went on top again. Goodwin and Perkins each laid the ball in to give SLU a three-point lead but Mitchell wasn’t satisfied with that and made layup of his own. Both teams wrestled the lead from each other until UMass finally broke away with 1:49 remaining on a huge 3-pointer from Carl Pierre.

The Minutemen never lost the lead, and the buzzer sounded on a final score of 67-63 UMass.

“They did what we were asking them to do down the stretch, unlike up at their place, and we found a way to get a great win against a team that won our league last year,” McCall said. “We’ve got to beat teams like that. That’s the message. We’ve got to beat teams like that, especially on our home floor. I’m proud of our guys, that’s a great win. To fight back, with the game not going well for us in the first half — there were times where it wasn’t going well for us in the second half — I was trying to find the right combinations of guys to play and our guys gutted it out. That’s a really good win.”

In the second half, the Billikens couldn’t buy a basket from outside. SLU shot just 0-of-4 from three in the second period despite UMass not changing much up defensively. Threes were contested, but not taken away. The Billikens went back to their physical style of play, but the Minutemen were able to match them. In the end, it was UMass’ ability to connect from outside and find reliable scoring on top of SLU’s inability to connect from deep that led to the win.

“We felt like we were going to double French and I didn’t feel like they were going to continue to shoot the ball that way in the second half just because it’s not what they’re good at,” McCall said. “They’re good at being physical and scoring on the inside. I mean they’re like 340th in 3-point field goals attempted, so they don’t shoot a lot. I felt like five for seven in the first half, I didn’t know if they could continue to shoot it at that clip.”

UMass in on the road again on Saturday when it travels to the Bronx to take on Fordham at 4 p.m.

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