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

Gray Soares: Frank Martin’s coaching decision costs UMass in loss at La Salle

Martin benches Keon Thompson for the last 16 minutes of the first half due to two fouls
Matt Skillings
Daily Collegian (2024)

It was a trap game from the start for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team, and head coach Frank Martin’s decision to keep his starting point guard on the bench for most of the opening half made that trap a reality.

The Minutemen (16-9, 7-6 Atlantic 10) lost 82-81 at La Salle, but it wasn’t close for most of the contest. Thompson’s benching was a large reason behind the Explorers (12-14- 3-10 A-10) building a double-digit lead they kept for almost the entire game.

Thompson picked up a second personal foul four minutes into the game with the score tied at 6-6. He was rightfully subbed out and Jaylen Curry went in. About three minutes later, Curry fouled for the first time and was subbed off for fringe rotation piece Marqui Worthy. Thompson didn’t play for the rest of the half.

Worthy then played 10 of the half’s final 13 minutes. Martin left him out on the court to run the UMass offense on the road despite the freshman having played a grand total of eight minutes in the team’s last six games.

“You think [Thompson] picked up two fouls by mistake?” Martin asked. “[La Salle head coach Fran Dunphy] knows the deal. [Dunphy] hasn’t won 900 games by mistake. He went right at [Thompson] to put fouls on him because he knows [Thompson] is a huge difference to our team, especially defensively. He went right after him. If I would’ve put [Thompson] back in, [Dunphy] would’ve gone right at him again.”

“If I get to hit the reset button, maybe I should’ve put [Thompson] back in there, but I know better,” Martin said. “I’ve been on the sideline for a long time. I know exactly what [Dunphy] is doing and why he did it. Bottom line is, the guys behind [Thompson] weren’t ready to answer the bell. They didn’t play well in the first half.”

It was arguably one of the worst stretches of the season for the Minutemen, one which saw the Explorers build a 10-point lead by halftime. Worthy played as many minutes as Thompson and Curry combined in the first half.

Benching a reliable point guard like Thompson for 16 straight minutes meant UMass couldn’t get out of a hole. It meant the Minutemen couldn’t overcome Daeshon Shepherd’s 19-point half, or the Explorers shooting 7-for-13 from 3.

Even after Worthy had multiple series of consecutive turnovers, missed shots (0-for-4) and got targeted on defense, Martin opted to keep Thompson on the bench with two fouls.

With his poise and consistency, Thompson would’ve been the perfect figure to stop the bleeding, take care of the ball and hold off the opposing guards from easily getting to the basket.

The other side of the coin might say that Martin was just trying to get to the break, especially since La Salle only opened the gap in the final two minutes of the half. The damage was manageable up to that point, and there isn’t much one can do when the Explorers hit a 3-pointer in three consecutive possessions to close the half.

It’s impossible to know whether Thompson would’ve picked up his third foul if he got back on the court, and hindsight is always 20-20. But two fouls don’t justify benching him for that long and leaving the team out to dry during a bad stretch when La Salle got hot. It was a major misstep at a crucial moment in the season.

“[Thompson] is a really good player,” Dunphy said. “Did we try to [get him into foul trouble?] Not necessarily, we didn’t have that in our gameplan. But our gameplan overall was to try and get in the paint, like everybody tries to do.”

The Minutemen were coming off a road win against then-conference leaders Richmond and had won four of their last five games. Soon they would play VCU, who sat right ahead of them in the standings, in a pivotal home game. They just had to watch out for an away game in between against a La Salle team that was tied for last in the conference and had lost five straight.

Martin’s decision wasn’t the end-all-be-all in the game –– the Explorers still had to make shots –– but it contributed to UMass falling in a trap game that essentially negated the impact of the Richmond win. It was a missed opportunity to stay close to VCU before hosting the Rams on Tuesday.

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

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