Davidson’s post presence too much for UMass men’s basketball in loss

Luka Brajkovic finished with a career-high 25 points

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Shilpa Sweth/Daily Collegian

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

Luka Brajkovic presented the Massachusetts men’s basketball team with too much to handle in the paint Tuesday night. The senior finished with a career-high 25 points and 10 rebounds in the 77-67 Davidson win.

Brajkovic bested the Minutemen (7-8, 0-3 Atlantic 10) from the first basket, which he scored on an effortless up-and-under against starting center Michael Steadman. The senior big man went 11-for-13 from the field.

“[Brajkovic] is a really, really good front court player that scores in and around the basket even when you’re trying to take away his right hand, he still finds a way to get to his right hand,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “He finishes everything down there. You put yourself in a predicament now if you’re going to run down and double team him because you’re going to give up threes… When you make a mistake defensively [Davidson will] make you pay.”

Even with the emphasis on defending the Wildcats’ (13-2, 3-0 A-10) 3-pointers, the Minutemen allowed in 11 of them, failing to stop both the inside and outside attacks of Davidson coach Bob McKillop’s potent offense. What didn’t help was when Brajkovic started hitting threes.

Hyunjung Lee, Foster Loyer and Michael Jones combine for over seven threes a game, leading to McCall game planning primarily against them. Brajkovic — who has made 10 threes this season, shooting them at a 30 percent rate — made two, which McCall did not anticipate.

“Those are kind of like back-breakers,” McCall said of Brajkovic’s pair of triples. “The one guy out there on the floor that doesn’t shoot a lot of 3-point shots makes two.”

A strong start in the first half for UMass was quickly forgotten when Brajkovic and fellow Wildcats big Sam Mennenga led a 12-0 run in less than two minutes. The score turned from 39-39 to 51-39 in an instant, leaving little hope for the Minutemen to climb back against one of the top teams in the A-10.

“There was a lot of positive things that we did, but we just got to find a way to piece it all together, McCall said. “We can’t have those stretches in the game where there’s a three- or-four-minute stretch where they go on a little bit of a run.”

Of Brajkovic’s 10 rebounds, four came on the offensive end. Davidson had five total offensive rebounds, which equated to 11 second-chance points. While Trent Buttrick and Greg Jones combined for 19 rebounds total for UMass, Steadman finished his night with three. The big man was also 0-5 from the field and after his initial starting shift saw his minutes dwindle to Jones down the stretch.

In the previous three games Steadman averaged 25.5 minutes, but only logged 18 Tuesday. His defensive struggles against the red hot Brajkovic forced McCall to put Buttrick (6-foot-8) and Jones (6-foot-7) on him. Both players have a size disadvantage against the 6-foot-10 Austrian native.

A 2-3 zone was even implemented in the middle of the second half, but an open corner three from Grant Huffman put the zone to bed, which led to Brajkovic and Mennenga piecing together an 8-0 run directly after the Minutemen brought the game within four points.

The past five games have shown improvement for Brajkovic, who is averaging 16.4 points in that span. This comes after averaging 11.6 in the first 10 games, giving Davidson’s perimeter-focused offense another factor A-10 defenses need to worry about.

While defense in general has been a major weakness for UMass throughout the season, McCall was hopeful that Steadman’s entry into the lineup after his injury would help the interior. Steadman’s limited minutes prove that there is much to be done down low defensively if the Minutemen want to compete near the top of the conference.

The next matchup for UMass will come against Rhode Island at home on Saturday, Davidson’s will be at Richmond on Friday.

Joey Aliberti can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JosephAliberti1.