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

Matt Cross leads UMass to victory in return to starting lineup

Cross pushes Minutemen past Saint Louis on the road
Kayla Wong
Daily Collegian (2024)

In his return to the starting lineup after a three-game absence, Matt Cross led the Massachusetts men’s basketball team to its first road win of the season, an 84-73 victory over Saint Louis on Saturday.

Cross missed time due to an ankle injury and oral surgery to repair a chipped tooth. He came off the bench in UMass’ (13-8, 4-4 Atlantic 10) previous game against Saint Joseph’s, posting an efficient 12 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Now back in the starting five for the matchup versus the Billikens (8-12, 1-6 A-10), Cross did that on a larger scale, leading the team with 19 points, five rebounds and five assists, again with efficient shooting numbers (6-of-11 from the field, 6-for-6 from the free throw line). Just as importantly, he led UMass in minutes with 34, a positive sign of his state after returning from injury.

Despite the productive numbers, it seemed as though Cross could’ve been even more aggressive against Saint Louis, passing up a few mismatch opportunities. As the second leading rebounder in the A-10 with 8.4 boards per game and a knack for getting to the line, the physicality in his game is clear to see. When he’s at his best and most confident self, there aren’t many players the Minutemen would take over him.

“[Cross is] a really good player, man,” UMass coach Frank Martin said, “he’s a hoss, he’s our backbone. We run a lot of our halfcourt offense through him as a scorer, facilitator, as a decision maker. It was hard the other day [against Saint Joseph’s], because he hadn’t really practiced in three weeks and done anything in three weeks. He couldn’t do anything and he tried to play on spirit and toughness. But he was really engaged yesterday in practice, and it’s great to have him back.”

The senior’s return to the starting lineup came at a much-needed time. The Minutemen had just lost three out of four, including a couple of last-second defeats. They needed to get back on track, and with their winless record on the road, this battle against a troubled Saint Louis team was a must-have. In comes Cross, leading the Minutemen during an off night for Josh Cohen. After the game, Martin referred again to an analogy he’s used a few times already: if he’s walking into a dark alley with Matt Cross next to him, there’s no doubt he’ll get to the other side.

Cross’ first basket of the game was a 25-foot 3-pointer he buried with no hesitation to give UMass its first bucket of the game. He didn’t make another three for the rest of the night, but shot 5-for-7 from inside the arc. Many of those were high-difficulty plays, crossing over and spinning around defenders, riding the contact and finishing at the rim.

While scoring and rebounding are a known strength, his passing can be just as much of an asset. His five assists led the team on Saturday, and he’s right next to Keon Thompson as the team’s leading passer at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds.

Cross ranks in the top 20 in the conference in scoring, rebounding, passing and field goal percentage, including fourth in steals per game (1.8) and first in offensive rebounds per game (2.9). It cannot be understated how much he matters for the Minutemen.

“I’m a pretty bad promoter of individual players because I like winning games, I’m not into celebrating individuality in a team game,” Martin said. “But Matt’s one of the top five players in the league. And I mean, it’s proven — what he’s done when he’s been healthy in Atlantic 10 play last year and this year. He’s our backbone. He’s the guy that gives us courage. Everyone on this team leans on him in those difficult moments. And he’s playing really good basketball. He’s a tough, tough dude, man. And I don’t say tough, like, ‘Let’s go fight.’ I mean, tough. He’s resilient, man. He doesn’t accept failure. He keeps his head up. He doesn’t run away from things.”

However, it’s not all rainbows and flowers for UMass’ leader. Cross hasn’t been as efficient from beyond the arc as he’s used to at 31.8 percent, and more significantly, he’s back to battling injuries. Last year he managed to only miss six games despite dealing with serious injuries and illnesses. Now he’s an even more important player, and the Minutemen need him to stay healthy if they want to continue to battle in the conference.

“Knock on wood,” Martin said while knocking on his head. “I hope he stays healthy coming down the stretch, not just for our team, but so he can finish this season the way he was playing before he dealt with his tooth and then his ankle there. He’s a multi-talented player, and I’m glad I get to coach him.”

A three-level scorer with great size and strength, passing, rebounding and defensive ability. Matt Cross is complete as they come, and UMass is glad to have him back.

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

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