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

UMass freshmen take center stage in win at Rhode Island

Minutemen’s freshmen core combines for 40 points
Kayla Wong / Daily Collegian

Four players were out on Saturday for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team in its 69-45 win at Rhode Island, and the Minutemen found a solution in the true-freshman trio of Keon Thompson, RJ Luis and Tafara Gapare.

The three rookies stepped up in the absence of major contributors like Noah Fernandes, Matt Cross and Dyondre Dominguez, combining for 40 points on the day. The future looked bright for UMass (14-13, 5-10 Atlantic 10) in its most dominant road victory in a decade.

“All three [freshmen] were great,” Minutemen coach Frank Martin said. “Through early January, [Thompson] would show up everyday and work his tail off, and he had the responsibility the size of the nail on my pinky finger. And all of a sudden he gets out of bed one day and he’s got the responsibility of the size of this arena. All on his shoulders. It just flipped on him from one day to the next … He’s a great kid, man, he don’t run from it. I’m really happy for him — all three of the freshmen.”

Thompson led the team in scoring and stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists. He controlled the tempo in transition and in the half court, took care of the ball and shot efficiently (6-for-10 from the field). With Fernandes and Rahsool Diggins’ injuries earlier in the season, Thompson was the last healthy point guard in the roster and had to grow up fast.

He was up for the challenge and managed the change from playing a usual 10 minutes a game to consistently reaching 30 minutes out on the court. His midrange jumper and finishing at the rim both have been reliable. His intensity fits the Martin mold, especially on defense and his poise is veteran-esque.

Luis had injury issues himself with a broken nose and a concussion just over two weeks ago, but came back and his offense hasn’t lost a step despite playing with a mask. He notched 14 points in 19 minutes on 7-for-11 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds against the Rams (8-18, 4-10 A-10). After picking up two early fouls, his playing time was mostly limited to the second half, when he picked apart URI’s defense within the perimeter.

“[Luis] picked up some cheap fouls early in the game, both his fault. He’s got to learn on those plays,” Martin said. “In the second half [Luis] got to play. He’s a gifted offensive player. He’s got to learn how to understand when to go and not to go, but that’s why he’s a freshman. He’s got to figure that out, but he gave us a tremendous presence on the court.”

Luis said he’s noticed his development throughout the season: “Just finding my spots, playing slower, seeing the floor or just being a scorer, knowing what to do.”

Luis ranks second among freshmen in the A-10 in points per game with 10.3, with that average set to rise after his 14-point night. He’s already tabbed two A-10 Freshman of the Week honors.

The third freshman, Gapare, had his first strong showing since a win against Saint Louis in early January. Gapare was the next man up at the power forward position in the absence of Cross, Dominguez and Brandon Martin, and his response to the new-found responsibility was encouraging. He finished with 11 points on 2-for-4 from deep and seven rebounds.

According to Martin, Gapare’s benefited from facing Cross everyday in practice, and the competition helped him grow ready for this moment.

“He’s been dying to get [out there],” Martin said. “[Competition in practice has] forced [Gapare] to grow up, it’s forced him to comprehend the physicality of the game a lot more. I just talked to [Gapare], I spent some time with him two days ago and I just told him, ‘You’re so much better right now than you were the first day you stepped foot on campus. You probably don’t realize it because you haven’t felt success, but you’ve improved drastically.’ Well he felt some success today so hopefully that continues to help him.

“It’s day and night. His strength, his weight, his comprehension of basketball, he’s just an athlete … Because of [Cross], it’s prepared him for this moment.”

The freshmen will have another chance to shine on Wednesday, Feb. 22 against Dayton at home. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

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