UMass men’s guards struggle in blowout loss to Saint Louis

Fernandes finishes with season-low five points

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McKenna Premus/Daily Collegian

By Joey Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

The offensive identity of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team runs through the guard combination of Noah Fernandes and Rich Kelly, who combine for 30 points per game this season. The two combined for eight points in the 90-59 loss to Saint Louis on Sunday.

UMass (8-10, 1-5 Atlantic 10) was outclassed by the Billikens just three days after defeating them 91-85 in Amherst. Guard play for the Minutemen was critical in the win, Fernandes finished with 24 and Rich Kelly with 10.

“We’ve got good guards, I’m not worried about [getting] those guys going,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “They’ve been going, and they need to continue to get better and improve… those guys will be ready to go. I thought we had good practices leading up to this one and the ball didn’t go in the basket.”

Fernandes’ day ended short after a collision with teammate Trent Buttrick in the first half. McCall called the collision “significant” after the game and “assumes” that he will be placed in the concussion protocol. UMass’ starting point guard and leading scorer finished with three points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field in 19 minutes. The only other time he finished with less than 25 minutes this season was when he exited the Ball State game early because of an injury.

The loss of Fernandes was a big blow, and the addition of Rich Kelly’s struggles led to an ugly finish. He shot 2-of-6 from the field and finished with five points. This is the first game of the season both Rich Kelly and Fernandes scored less than 10 points and the largest loss (31) since Feb. 1, 2020.

One of the biggest factors in Thursday’s win over Saint Louis was the guards’ ability to pressure the paint and make it to the free throw line. The Minutemen shot 33 free throws in Thursday’s win and 17 in Sunday’s loss.

“I thought we settled for too many jump shots,” McCall said. “Last time we played against them we were doing a better job of putting pressure on the paint and getting to the basket… I thought we did have some clean looks that didn’t go down, but there’s going to be nights where you don’t shoot the ball particularly well from behind the 3-point line and you got to find ways to put pressure on the paint.”

Both teams applied full-court pressure in the first matchup, but the Billikens ramped it up and consistently brought a full court press on Sunday. The persistent defensive disruption led to UMass finishing with eight assists compared to 13 turnovers. The Minutemen dished out 11 assists to nine turnovers in the previous matchup. Fernandes is the primary facilitator for UMass, though he tried playing through the injury he was clearly not 100 percent which directly translates to the team’s assist-to-turnover ratio.

Other guards such as C.J. Kelly and T.J Weeks played a more important role with their rebounding rather than their scoring in Thursday’s win. C.J. Kelly led all players a career-high nine rebounds while Weeks added in five of his own on Thursday. Weeks repeated with five more rebounds Sunday, but C.J. Kelly finished with only two and the Minutemen were out-rebounded 55-35.

Even though the game was far out of hand, McCall appreciated Javohn Garcia’s second-half performance. After having two points in 11 minutes in the first half, he scored 12 points in 11 more minutes in the final half. Amid UMass’ most embarrassing loss of the season, Garcia helped the score look not nearly as lopsided as it already did.

“I was proud of Javohn at the end of the game because I didn’t think he quit,” McCall said. “I thought he kept fighting and playing hard.”

With Fernandes health status going forward in question, Garcia will see an increase in minutes and responsibility as he has in the two games this season without Fernandes. In two games with no Fernandes, Garcia averages 15.5 points and 2.5 steals.

The next game for the Minutemen will be 7 p.m. on Wednesday at La Salle.

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