Tafara Gapare excites in UMass win over Albany

Gapare’s athleticism is on full display

Dylan+Nguyen+%2F+Daily+Collegian

Dylan Nguyen / Daily Collegian

By Pedro Gray Soares, Assistant Sports Editor

If athleticism and impact are the parameters in consideration, then a new star is emerging for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team in freshman forward Tafara Gapare.

After making crucial game-winning plays in UMass’ (7-1) win against Harvard, Gapare showed out in the Minutemen’s 87-73 victory against Albany (3-7) at home on Monday. He earned 21 minutes and made the most out of the opportunity, leading the team in scoring with a career-high 15 points and five steals.

“Overall, [Gapare] just needed to get comfortable,” Brandon Martin said. “Everybody expects somebody to come in and just impact the game. He didn’t know none of us. He didn’t know our system. He didn’t know how we played or anything. We know he’s gifted, he’s like 6-10, can dribble the ball, can shoot so obviously he’s going to help us. He just needed to find that way in our offense and these last two games, I think he’s found it.”

The Mullins Center crowd had a special cheer reserved for every time Gapare entered the game. It roared even louder when Gapare’s inevitable highlight-reel play took place, then applauded him again every time his shift ended and he sat back on the bench.

Gapare’s performance checked nearly every box. On offense he shot 6-for-10 from the field, scoring at the rim, from deep and at the foul line. His ball-handling and explosiveness immediately catch the eye; they shouldn’t be possible for a 6-foot-10-inch freshman who at times looks a baby giraffe learning how to move.

“You see his ball skills, you see his length, you see his instincts,” Minutemen head coach Frank Martin said. “Passing is probably his best skill right now. Now he’s got to learn the physicality of the game. He’s got to learn how to play through contact a little bit. He’s not there yet. He’s still in the infancy stage of basketball.

“I mean, we tend to forget, because we see somebody that can jump and dunk, he’s 6-foot-10, that can also make a three, we seem to forget sometimes that someone like him is still a baby.”

There were a handful of moments that took the air out of the Mullins Center, and they all involved Gapare leaving his feet.

He usually gives the crowd a little taste of his vertical leap during warmups and layup lines, but against the Great Danes he finally showed the real thing. The Wellington, New Zealand native had three dunks in the game, including one where he took the ball the full length of the court and hammered it home after no one got in front of him.

Even though his offense was impressive, it was his defensive impact that showed what he can do in a short amount of time. Along with his five steals, Gapare finished with two blocks, including a third one called off due to a foul by Rahsool Diggins.

Gapare also took two offensive charges early in the game and got three steals within a 54-second span. He had another one of the game’s most impressive plays when he baited an Albany player into taking a 3-pointer right in front of him and swatted his pull-up jumper with ease.

While the forward showed immense potential on the skill and athleticism side of things, physicality wasn’t on the checklist Monday night as he finished with just one rebound in the game. Still, Gapare is playing for the right coach if he wants to grow in that department.

After having visa issues, Gapare got to UMass just days before the season started, and thus had much less time to adapt before getting on the court. But the talent showed from day one.

“Everyone thinks that you spend three months thinking that maybe you’re not going to be allowed in the country and all of a sudden you get word that you’re allowed in the country and you just get on a plane and travel 29 hours, and you get off the plane and, ‘I’m here, let’s go,’ you know, put your cape on,” Martin said. “That’s not the way this works. He had an adjustment period he had to go through. Last time I checked, this is not the G-League. This is an academic institution.

“He’s a really talented young man, and as he continues to understand what we’re doing, and competes, and keeps his head in the right place and takes care of his responsibilities, you can see his talent when he goes out there and plays.”

Gapare and the Minutemen will face UMass Lowell on Thursday, Dec. 8. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

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