UMass continues to struggle on the road in loss to Northeastern

Northeastern scored season-high 82 points

McKenna+Premus%2F+Daily+Collegian

McKenna Premus/ Daily Collegian

By Pedro Gray Soares, Collegian Staff

For the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, defense has been that sneaky last piece of the puzzle that has been hiding this season, it struggled on that side of the court once again in its 82-76 loss to Northeastern on the road Tuesday night.

“Winning on the road is hard. I think two categories statistically that you always have to look at that we talked about after the Harvard game, were free throw margin and rebounding margin,” Minutemen (6-4) head coach Matt McCall said. “…Going on the road you’ve got to be able to win those two things, but we can’t give up 82 points on the road and expect to win, we have to be better defensively.”

In a back-and-forth matchup between the two Massachusetts schools, the Huskies (6-4) outshot UMass from the free throw line by 11, and outrebounded them by five. The Minutemen pulled away early with high-percentage 3-point shooting, but poor defense allowed Northeastern to quickly catch up.

The Huskies had seven players with eight points or more, and Shaquille Walters led the way for them with 16 points. Next to him was Nikola Djogo, who McCall praised after the game. The Notre Dame transfer finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

“I was really concerned about Djogo, I think he changes their team,” McCall said. “He’s got experience. He’s a game changer for Northeastern in my opinion, he’s terrific.”

For UMass, guard Rich Kelly led all scorers with 25 points, shooting 6-for-12 from deep. Star guard Noah Fernandes followed him closely with 24 points and center Trent Buttrick had 15 points and nine rebounds.

In order to patch up their defensive liability, McCall tried a full-court press, which looked to be most effective, and if not for foul trouble it would have been used more often.

“Their point guard was out tonight and they didn’t have a true point guard out there,” Rich Kelly said. “So we thought we could exploit that a little bit and put some pressure on them, and it’s definitely something that we’re going to use in the future.”

Foul trouble was a large burden on UMass’ night, as its firepower took a hit on both sides of the court when C.J. Kelly and Noah Fernandes each picked up their fourth foul early in the second half. C.J. Kelly fouled out late in the game, and Fernandes was unable to play as large of a role down the stretch as McCall would’ve liked.

Additionally, the Minutemen had trouble finding players to step up when the main scorers were off the court. Most nights they can boast strong scoring depth, but Tuesday night was not one of them. Four points in eight shots was all that the UMass bench was able to put on the scoreboard.

“We’ve got to have more scoring coming off the bench,” McCall said. “I thought that our pressure in the second half defensively was terrific and I thought that we got put in a situation, because of foul trouble we had to kind of take it off. Two of our better offensive players were in foul trouble in the second half.”

With Dibaji Walker out due to injury, Greg Jones saw his minutes increase to starter-level numbers. Jones’ effort was impressive; he took a charge, jumped for loose balls, and was the first to run back on defense multiple times.

With 12:01 in the second half, tensions rose after a foul by UMass’ Michael Steadman. He was then face-to-face with Northeastern’s center Chris Doherty. A scuffle quickly formed, and the benches emptied.

No violence took place, but Steadman and Doherty both picked up technical fouls, and UMass’ Preston Santos was ejected from the bench. McCall was visibly aggravated by the refereeing multiple times throughout the contest. However, his thoughts were clear after the game, and the bottom line seems to remain the same for the Minutemen.

“We scored enough points to win the game in my opinion, but I think that we have to find ways to continue to improve defensively,” McCall said.

UMass will travel to Fort Worth, Texas to face the North Texas Mean Green on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 4:30 p.m.

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached out at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_GraySoares