Gray Soares: Where UMass improved from its first game against Dayton

Minutemen almost upset Flyers in A-10 Tournament

McKenna+Premus+%2F+Daily+Collegian

McKenna Premus / Daily Collegian

By Pedro Gray Soares, Collegian Staff

Despite losing both games against Dayton this season, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team had a drastically different performance each time.

Back in February, UMass (15-16, 7-11 Atlantic 10) lost 82-61 after a dominant performance in all aspects by the Flyers (23-9, 14-4 A-10), who doubled UMass in scoring by halftime. This time around, the Minutemen not only held their own but led for most of the contest in one of their best games of the season, losing 75-72 in the A-10 quarterfinals. Let’s breakdown what changed.

Handling the pressure

UMass couldn’t handle Dayton’s press in its first matchup. As a bigger and more athletic team, the Flyers harassed Noah Fernandes, Rich Kelly and anyone who dared to bring the ball up the court.

The Minutemen had trouble crossing half court and getting into their offense. Failed pick-and-roll attempts turned into impatience, which led to poor shot selection.

“We definitely prepared a lot more for this game and we were definitely ready for [the press],” Fernandes said. “Obviously, playing in their arena, in that environment it’s a little different when they’re pressuring like that. So today at a neutral site, that was definitely a little different. And I think the way we adjusted to it put them in positions where they couldn’t really turn us over that many times. So just the approach was a lot different tonight, for sure.”

The pressure did not affect the Minutemen’s’ main ball-handlers on Friday. Fernandes, Javohn Garcia and Rich Kelly combined for two turnovers, and the team finished with a total of six, a season low. UMass managed to control the tempo Friday night against the Flyers.

Noah Fernandes

Regarded as one of the best scorers in the A-10, it was shocking that Fernandes finished his first matchup against Dayton scoreless. He played 22 minutes and went 0-for-5 from the field. The star guard was the difference maker for the Minutemen this time around.

“He got his team going,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “He’s been on a nice stretch here for the last three or four games where he’s played at a high level, and he continued to do that tonight. He’s a really good basketball player. We tried to make it difficult for him. He made tough shots, found ways to make plays for his team.”

Fernandes averaged 27.6 points a game over the final three games of the season. On Friday, the Flyers had no answer for his quickness, smooth footwork and deadly midrange shooting.

Fernandes did most of his damage by forcing Dayton to switch on screens and put big men against him. He mercilessly attacked mismatches and created space where there was none, often finishing with fadeaway midrange shots, which dropped one after another.

Pick-and-roll coverage

In their first meeting, Dayton took apart the Minutemen’s pick-and-roll coverage. Behind Malachi Smith orchestrating the offense, the Flyers easily got open looks at the rim for its big men, especially off alley-oops. Smith, an A-10 All-Rookie member, dished out nine assists in that game.

“We wanted to be aggressive with Malachi [Smith], he’s too good of a player.” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “Talk about a guy that’s grown up all season and gotten better and really improved in his play-making ability. You just can’t come off pick-and-rolls and allow him to see people and see gaps.”

The Minutemen did the best they could with Smith in the quarterfinals matchup, but the freshman still had a solid performance with 15 points, five rebounds, six assists and one turnover. He found ways to get the ball to A-10 Rookie of the Year DaRon Holmes II, who led Dayton with 28 points.

UMass had much to learn from its blowout loss to Dayton in late February, and it almost turned into an upset win in the quarterfinals of the A-10 Tournament.

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