Dibaji Walker’s addition to the starting lineup provides flexibility for UMass

Walker had four blocks in 25 minutes against Rhode Island

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

Looking at the box score from Wednesday’s 80-78 overtime win against Rhode Island, it’s clear to see Massachusetts men’s basketball forward Ronnie DeGray III stand out. DeGray III put together a career game in his young freshman career, scoring 21 points, adding six rebounds, three assists and two steals.

However, the addition of forward Dibaji Walker to the UMass (4-3, 3-1 Atlantic 10) starting lineup the past two contests has added another dimension to the Minutemen. In the win over the Rams (6-7, 3-3 A-10) Walker blocked a team-leading four shots in just 25 minutes of play.

“Dibaji brings a defensive presence,” DeGray III said. “He helps with height and getting more rebounds. He’s not afraid to guard the best [offensive player]. He gives us that defensive motive to guard out the whole game. He helps everything, he does everything for us.”

Though the four blocks stand out on the stat sheet, Walker’s best play of the night came with the game on the line.

Leading by one with 20 seconds remaining in overtime, Matt McCall subbed Walker in for guard Javohn Garcia. Immediately, the 6-foot-9 junior was tasked with guarding URI guard Jeremy Sheppard on the inbounds play.

Fighting through two screens, Walker stayed on Sheppard’s hip as he drove to the lane. With the length of Walker in his face, Sheppard went up for the layup only to lose grip of the ball. It fell into the hands of Carl Pierre who was able to sink another free throw and extend the Minutemen lead to the final 80-78.

While Walker did not get credited with a steal or block on that play and was unable to sink any of his six three-point attempts throughout the win, his defensive effort made the difference when it mattered most.

“Early in the game those guards were trying to go down the lane and beat him off the bounce and he really altered some shots,” said UMass head coach Matt McCall. “Dibaji is a great defender. You look at the stat sheet he’s 0-for-6 from three. He shot good shots; I don’t think he forced any of them. But he impacted the game defensively today. I’m really proud of Dibaji.”

The trickle-down impact of Walker’s presence comes in the form of Javohn Garcia. Though Garcia, an A-10 Rookie of the Week earlier this season, has four starts this season, keeping him on the bench at the start gives him the ability to play deeper into crunch time.

“One of the reasons we decided to [start Dibaji] was that we don’t need [Javohn] in foul trouble,” said McCall. “We need him in the game especially when the game is on the line. That was one of the reasons we did it too.”

In the loss to Bryant, Garcia was limited to just 21 minutes as he sat in foul trouble. In the double overtime loss against George Mason, he fouled out in just 12 minutes of action. While Garcia has certainly shown plenty of promise in his short freshman career, there is still a lot to learn discipline wise.

“Javohn wants to win,” said McCall. “He isn’t caught up in [the starting lineup] and he doesn’t care. He came off the bench the first game of the season and had [23 points.] Defensively tonight I thought he was phenomenal, guarding those two veteran guards in the backcourt as a freshman. You look at the stat sheet and he has three steals. That was just one-on-one defense in the backcourt, he was terrific.”

Though Garcia did earn himself four fouls in the victory against the Rams, he did so across 31 minutes. Most of those minutes came in the second half as Garcia subbed on with 15:17 remaining in regulation and played until Walker came in with 20 seconds left in overtime.

The Minutemen have struggled at times this season against opposing guard play and adding Walker to the starting lineup not only quells that problem but gives McCall more lineup flexibility later in games. In future contests, especially against tough guard duos like Sheppard and Fatts Russell, McCall will likely depend on Walker to clamp down from the tip.

Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheDanMcGee.