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

Comeback bid falls short for UMass at La Salle

Minutemen nearly claw back from 18-point second half deficit
Jonathan Shi
Daily Collegian (2023)

It’s been a season of highs and lows for the Massachusetts basketball team, although 2023-24 has seen more of the former than in years past.

UMass (16-9, 7-6 A-10) suffered one of its most significant lows Saturday, falling to La Salle 82-81.

“We were a tired team today,” Martin said. “It showed the way we played in the first half. But I don’t want to take anything away from La Salle… I knew coming into today that [La Salle coach Fran Dunphy] wasn’t going to allow this game to get away from them.”

With the Explorers (12-14, 3-10 Atlantic 10) carrying an 18-point lead with 10 minutes remaining, a blowout loss seemed more likely for the Minutemen than a come-from-behind win. Sure, La Salle’s offensive output had steadied after a breathtaking first half of scoring. UMass’ offense had yet to find its groove, and with Keon Thompson relegated to the bench for much of the first half, there was no steady guard play that could give the Minutemen good looks.

And yet, UMass battled — 18 points became 12, 12 became 10, 10 became six. The Minutemen offense followed a common theme: get to the paint and draw fouls on a depleted Explorer frontcourt. Of the 28 points that UMass scored in the final 10 minutes, 11 came from made free throws.

The chipping away of a large lead continued until the Minutemen had their best chance yet. With La Salle guard Khalil Brantley missing the front end of a one-and-one, UMass had 22 seconds to shake off a three-point deficit. As Martin described it, freshman guard Jaylen Curry made a “great decision” off a ghost screen and found Matt Cross in rhythm.

It was the look the team had dreamed of.

Cross’ shot went in and out.

“When it goes in, you celebrate,” Martin said. “When it [doesn’t] go in, you have heartache. And that’s the way this game works.”

The Minutemen were left fighting from behind as a result of the Explorers’ first half. Both teams dealt huge blows to the other on offense initially, and a high pace of play led to 79 points scored in the game’s opening 18 minutes. At that rate, one team was destined to falter eventually, and that team was UMass. Daeshon Shepherd, who came into Saturday shooting just 25.6 percent from three, hit three deep balls in a row to turn a one-point La Salle lead into ten in the blink of an eye.

“He did a phenomenal job,” Dunphy said. “When he’s on his stuff, he’s a very good basketball player.”

That scoring outburst capped a 51-point first half for the Explorers, the most the team has scored in a half against a Division-I opponent this season. Shepherd finished with 19 points, all of which came in the first half. Him and guard Jhamir Brickus co-led La Salle in scoring.

Despite scoring 81 points, the Minutemen offense felt disjointed for much of the contest. The team was getting good opportunities inside, but their post looks weren’t coming at the regularity that followers of the team are used to. Nearly half of UMass’ 59 attempts were threes, a stark contrast from the team’s usual post-heavy play.

“We were lethargic in our cuts, lethargic in our screens,” Martin said. “We didn’t hold the post-ups the way we needed to in there.”

Turnovers were also an issue without Thompson in the lineup, and early on, the Explorers kept pace with the Minutemen thanks to mistakes from UMass’ young guards. It was a day to forget for those two freshmen–Marqui Worthy and Jaylen Curry–who combined to go 1-of-9 from the floor with three turnovers.

“It was the first time all year we played tired,” Martin said. “Obviously the way I managed [the last two days] didn’t give us that edge that we’ve played with all year, that we played with in the second half. We didn’t have it.”

Josh Cohen led the Minutemen in scoring with 21 points and 13 rebounds.

UMass returns home Tuesday to take on VCU. Tipoff’s at 7:00 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

Dean Wendel can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @DeanWende1.

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