Hot shooting start leads UMass to championship win over Charlotte

Early scoring run paces Minutemen’s victory

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Lara Zuk / ESPN Images (2022)

By Pedro Gray Soares, Assistant Sports Editor

A magical first half of shooting for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team gave it a lead it never lost, crowning the Minutemen champions of the Myrtle Beach Invitational with a 60-54 win over Charlotte.

“We hadn’t really jumped on anybody yet this year, just like start the game with a run,” UMass guard Noah Fernandes said. “We kind of talked about it the other day in our game, but today it was crazy, we finally jumped out on somebody and had them on their heels to start the game, which was really, really good. I think that shaped the whole game from there.”

After the 49ers (4-1) scored the opening basket, UMass (4-1) went on a deadly 12-0 run over three minutes, shooting a perfect 5-for-5 in all jump shots it took during that span. The Minutemen didn’t cool down throughout the next 15 minutes, which saw them knock down tough shot after tough shot, with some good looks under the basket sprinkled in between.

Tough-shot-making was the story of the game for UMass. All the jumpers that the Minutemen seemed to miss in their last three games were going in on Sunday. Perhaps the most impressive of the bunch was Matt Cross’ long-range hit, which marked the end of a critical 20 minutes of the early season for UMass.

With the game clock nearing zero and Frank Martin’s group unable to find a good look, Cross picked up a pass at the top of the key, crossed over his defender and side-stepped for a deep three off the dribble. A difficult shot that went in as the halftime buzzer sounded, putting the Minutemen back up by double digits before heading into the locker room.

Martin wants this team to be defensively minded and a force in the paint, but if the first half against Charlotte is any indication, it can become a threatening team on the offensive end in the perimeter as well.

The early 12-0 run provided a crucial lead and set the tone for the rest of the half. It also showed how dangerous it can be when a defensive team plays unstoppable offense.

“I feel like it was just easier because once you jump out early you kind of get to run your plays and they’re in panic mode, their players are trying to push it, kind of like playing catch-up,” Cross said. “We were playing relaxed, and it’s good to see that we can jump on a team early because now we know that we are able to do that.”

It started with a contested 3-pointer from TJ Weeks on the wing. When the offense stalled, Weeks received a pass in the perimeter, paused for a second and pulled up from deep, sparking chaos for the next 176 seconds.

In the following possession, Cross picked a spot in the paint and finished a tough close-range jumper with touch, getting a shooter’s bounce. He also knocked down a jump shot in the next possession, making the 49ers pay for a turnover.

Then Fernandes did what he usually does, showing patience and his ability to create a shot from nothing as he pivoted on a defender and hit a turnaround shot from the elbow. The Minutemen got their fourth stop in a row coming out of a media timeout, and Weeks completed the run with a 3-pointer from deep.

By the end of the half, UMass shot 60 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the 3-point line. Weeks and Cross combined for 19 points in 7-for-7 shooting in the period.

Despite regressing in the second half, UMass shot well enough in the first to grant them a good enough cushion to bring the Myrtle Beach trophy back to Amherst, as it led for 38:18 and only trailed for the first 20 seconds of the contest.

“We kind of gave them a lot of confidence in their offense in the beginning,” Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez said. “They also made some tough shots. Contested threes at the end of a shot clock, etcetera, and then they made some tough contested layups.”

The 49ers’ pack line defense proved a handful for the Minutemen when it woke up in the second half, neutralizing UMass’ shooting and entire offense. The pack line is a look UMass had never seen, and it held the Minutemen to 8-for-26 from the field and 2-for-7 from deep in the last 20 minutes. An open shot was extremely hard to come by, and Charlotte often forced UMass to heave a prayer in late shot-clock scenarios.

Coming back from halftime the Minutemen shot 2-for-12 in the first eight minutes, including a scoreless run of 6:50. If not for the 49ers missing numerous sitters and shooting 1-for-10 from deep in the half, the game could’ve been a lot closer.

“I was concerned at halftime,” Martin said. “And the reason I was concerned is I thought our defense had been really good, but our offense was relying on us making some bombs –– I’ve coached long enough, those things don’t continue to go in. We were not getting paint touches, we were not getting baskets at the rim and if those bombs ever stopped, I was worried that our scoring would struggle.”

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