UMass basketball looking to complete season sweep of La Salle

Minutemen will play their first game since Dec. 30

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team will look to complete a season sweep of La Salle as they welcome the Explorers (5-5, 2-1 Atlantic 10) to the Mullins Center in Amherst on Jan. 9.

The Minutemen (2-3, 1-1 A-10) will play their first game in over 10 days after consecutive postponements in their schedule. UMass was slated to play Saint Louis on Jan. 2 before COVID-19 concerns caused the game to be postponed. Riots and insurrection at The Capitol Building on Jan. 6 forced a scheduled 6 p.m. tip-off at George Washington to a halt.

“In times like this when you look at our country and how completely divided it is, sports have a way of bringing people together,” head coach Matt McCall said. “I said to our team we have an opportunity to come together and be a team and enjoy being around each other and enjoy the game.”

“We’ve played two games in 18 days. We keep getting games cancelled so there’s also a level of them that wants to get back out there and play.”

In their first matchup of the season, the Minutemen blew out the Explorers 85-66 due to dominant performances from sophomore center Tre Mitchell and point guard Noah Fernandes. Mitchell finished with 37 points, while Fernandes added 11 points along with nine assists, five steals and no turnovers.

“We’ve just got to come out the gate aggressive and make La Salle play our game and not theirs,” sophomore center Tre Mitchell said.

Since UMass visited La Salle on Dec. 16, the Explorers have won three of their last four contests. La Salle defeated Delaware by 10 before falling to Maryland on Dec. 22. The Explorers then broke Dayton’s 20-game Atlantic 10 win-streak in a two-point victory before blowing out Fordham 89-52.

“They’re a different team,” McCall said. “They have the same personnel but they’ve played a lot of games since us. They’re playing inspired. I think [La Salle head coach Ashley Howard] has them playing extremely hard. They’re not the same team with how they’re playing.”

Having not played in an extended amount of time–their last game a double overtime loss against George Mason–UMass has had to increase their scrimmage time during practice.

“It’s been a challenge,” said McCall of staying in game shape over that time. “When you look at our last game, special situations came down to that game. Trying to simulate some of those situations that we’re going to be in during conference play, because you’re always going to be in close games during conference play. Keeping it competitive, mixing up the teams, mixing up the drills, trying to keep things fresh.”

“It goes about controlling what you can control,” Mitchell said of having not played in 10 days. “A lot of things, obviously we can’t affect them. The only thing that we can affect is our mindset and how we approach things.”

Though Saturday evening’s game presents an opportunity for the Minutemen to get back on the court after an extended hiatus, the events of the past week make it mean so much more than a normal game of basketball. UMass is expected to protest in some capacity prior to tip-off.

“With everything that’s been thrown at [the team], we’ve been trying to keep it fun and stay positive and make sure it’s not just on to La Salle’s pick and roll coverage or how they’re going to guard us or how we need to attack them,” said McCall. “It’s about understanding what they’re going through and having a level of sympathy for that.”

But for players, Saturday’s game is also an opportunity to escape the animosity of the world for 40 minutes.

“It’s definitely a welcoming thing to be able to focus on basketball,” senior captain Carl Pierre said. “It’s kind of a way to relieve tension and stress in regards to what’s going on right now.”

The game can be watched nationally on NBCSN. Tip-off is slated for 4 p.m.

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