UMass overcomes 16-point deficit to defeat La Salle

Minutemen outrebounded the Explorers 44-27

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McKenna Premus/Daily Collegian

By Pedro Gray Soares, Collegian Staff

Rich Kelly led the Massachusetts men’s basketball team to a 16-point comeback victory at La Salle on Wednesday, winning 77-71.

“I just think that we showed unbelievable resilience,” UMass head coach Matt McCall said. “I think the positivity in the timeouts, the communication, we just had to rev up the intensity defensively.”

The Minutemen (9-10, 2-5 Atlantic 10) have proven their ability to come from behind once again, and this time without star guard Noah Fernandes. In his place, Rich Kelly, Trent Buttrick, T.J. Weeks and Javohn Garcia all stepped up in a big way.

Kelly quietly dominated the scoring with 21 points on just 13 shots while also leading his team in assists with six. He dictated the pace of the game and orchestrated the second half comeback, consistently making the right decisions with the ball.

“We kind of challenged him even at halftime, to get in the lane, make the right play, I don’t really remember him making a bad [play] the second half,” McCall said.

Right behind him was Buttrick, who scored 16 points, shooting 3-for-6 from downtown and grabbing six boards. His defense also earned high praise from McCall. Weeks  finished with a double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing a season-high 10 rebounds.

McCall also liked Garcia’s performance, who stepped up his scoring with 11 points, including a clutch layup off a perfectly timed cut to take the lead with 43 seconds left, then knocked down two free throws to put the game away.

Guards Josh Nickelberry and Jack Clark led the charge for the Explorers. Nickelberry had 18 points, four rebounds and four assists, while displaying difficult-shot-making ability. Clark followed him with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists, and at times looked like he was taking over the game.

For the Minutemen, the key to defeat on Sunday was perhaps the key to victory on Wednesday. They were outrebounded by 20 in a 31-point loss against Saint Louis in their previous game. On Wednesday’s win they outrebounded La Salle –– a top 30 rebounding team in the nation –– 44-27, including 17-7 on the offensive glass.

“When you get outrebounded by 20, that’s an effort thing, and that’s all we talked about, was our effort,” McCall said. “We can control that; we can control turning around and blocking out.”

UMass outrebounding such a high-level rebounding team was as unlikely as La Salle outshooting the Minutemen from deep, who rank sixth in the country in 3-pointers made, but both pulled it off. The Explorers started the game with three 3-pointers in a row and ended with nine makes from beyond the arc compared to UMass’ eight.

Defensive ineptitude has been a story for the entire season, and after allowing 42 points in the first half, defensive improvement in the second half was vital for the Minutemen to pull off a win. McCall specifically praised Buttrick and Greg Jones for their defensive contribution, and Weeks has proven his value on that side of the court repeatedly this season.

“[We] definitely focused on the defensive end and rebounding, and just playing unselfishly offensively,” Rich Kelly said. “Those were kind of the main focuses that we talked about in halftime, and I thought we really executed well in the second half.”

UMass will be back at the Mullins Center for their next game in a matchup against George Mason. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m.

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