Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Noah Fernandes misses game winner in UMass’ home loss against La Salle

The Minutemen fall to 1-3 in conference play
Dylan Nguyễn/Daily Collegian (2023)

Everybody playing, coaching or watching knew Noah Fernandes would take the last shot, he had to.

Massachusetts’ senior point guard won two games in the past two seasons off last-second 3-pointers, most recently against Murray State in the Myrtle Beach Invitational on Nov. 18. Fernandes focus peaks in these kinds of moments. Everything around him is silent, he self admittedly blacks out when the final shot is in his hands.

He moved to the right before picking up his dribble after a failed pick and roll, desperately pivoting for any sort of space and one final chance with his team down one. Explorers (8-8, 2-1 Atlantic 10) point guard Khalil Brantley didn’t budge, denying Fernandes another clutch moment in the Minutemen’s (10-6, 1-3 A-10) 78-77 loss at home Wednesday night.

“I wasn’t really sure what they were going to do defensively,” Fernandes said. “I didn’t know if they were going to double, hedge me, switch [the screen]. I wasn’t really sure so mentally I was a little messed up there but I just tried to get a good look at the end and couldn’t.”

The loss tied UMass for second-last in conference standings, an unexpected start after going 9-3 in non conference play. Coach Frank Martin and the Minutemen want their identity to start on the defensive side of the ball, which hasn’t held up nearly as well against conference opponents. In its four A-10 matchups, UMass allowed 80.8 points per game. In its 12 out of conference games, that average was 66 points allowed per game.

“Going into Christmas, the best part about our team was our team defense,” Martin said. “Ever since we got back from Christmas our team defense is non-existent. We’re not defending, and when you don’t defend you got no chance to win.”

“Outside of the first half against Saint Louis, our defense has been really bad.”

Jhamir Brickus gave Martin’s defense the most problems, specifically in the second half. He made his first five shots of the period, four of which were 3-pointers, scoring 22 points in the final 20 minutes. Freshman RJ Luis guarded Brickus for much of the second half, but screens, great offensive ball movement and isolation ball handling gave the hot-handed Brickus all he needed.

“When you’re guarding [Brickus], you got to go get in his space and make him drive because he’s [5-feet 8-inches],” Martin said. “We kept backing off of him and that’s selfish. That’s uninspired, undisciplined basketball.”

Neither Martin nor Fernandes directly called out Luis after the game on his defense, deferring to the lack of team defense as the primary problem.

“It’s not a 1-on-1 tournament at the YMCA, it’s five against five,” Martin said.

“I think we do a lot of blaming on one person,” Fernandes said. “At the end of the day there’s five guys out there playing defense.”

After missing three games because of knee issues, Wildens Leveque made his return to the lineup. Martin has praised him all season as one of, if not his best defender. He came off the bench and the knee didn’t look like a problem at any point. He was hustling whenever he was in the game, chasing down an Explorers layup that he had no business rejecting. He finished the game with 10 points, five rebounds and as Martin noted after the game, a team-best +11 plus-minus.

“Maybe having [Leveque] back solidifies our defense a little bit,” Martin said. “He’s a big part of the team that we tried to build early because of his personality and the way he helps everybody. When your help defense has your back, it creates unbelievable trust amongst your teammates, and [Leveque] is really good at that.”

Martin didn’t make a substitution for the final 6:46 of the game, keeping Fernandes, Luis and Leveque on the floor alongside Matt Cross and Tafara Gapare. That lineup outscored the Explorers 12-6 in that time. They also held La Salle to zero points in the final two minutes, with their last made field goal of the game coming with 5:22 left.

“I just thought [those five guys] were giving us the best energy defensively,” Martin said. “I’m not very good with casual basketball. I don’t live my life in a casual way. I don’t enjoy being around casual people … I like coaching guys that play with energy and relentless mindsets.”

Both T.J. Weeks (seven minutes) and Dyondre Dominguez (two minutes) didn’t see much of the floor in the second half after each played double-digit minutes through the first 20 minutes. Dominguez also scored 10 points in the first half.

UMass is home again at 4:30 p.m. EST on Saturday against Rhode Island. The game can be found on NESN+.

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

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