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 backcourt comes up big in victory over Rhode Island

Minutemen guards contribute in all facets during off day for the frontcourt
Matt Skillings
Daily Collegian (2024)

Sunday’s game did not go how this paper’s preview said it would for the Massachusetts men’s basketball team.

Rhode Island came into Saturday allowing a good chunk of opponents’ points to come off close twos. Josh Cohen, one of UMass’ top players, had one of his worst nights the game prior against St. Bonaventure. Matt Cross, who didn’t play in the teams’ first meeting, was back and healthy. All signs pointed to a successful day for the Minuteman frontcourt.

Instead, the opposite occurred. UMass’ 81-79 victory came off the backs of its guards. It’s not as if Cross and Cohen had bad games. The frontcourt stalwarts contributed 10 and 13 points, respectively, and both had moments that kept the Minutemen from blowing their double-digit lead down the stretch. But Frank Martin’s backcourt took the spotlight at the Mullins Center.

Of UMass’ stable of guards, Rahsool Diggins shone brightest on Sunday. Throughout two years with the Minutemen, Diggins has struggled to find success from deep. Last year, the UConn transfer shot below 30 percent from three for the season. In 2023-24, though, Diggins has found much more success, and against the Rams his 3-point abilities took a leap.

Diggins finished with a career-high six made threes for a UMass team that doesn’t pride themselves on good looks from deep. His most important make came with 59 seconds to go, nailing a left-wing look in a moment where Rhode Island had all the momentum.

“As a team, we’re proud of him because we’ve seen him go through the mud last year,” guard Keon Thompson said.

“We’ve always known he could do it,” Cross said. “He can shoot it, he’s always in the gym. So it’s good to see his work pay off.”

Of Diggins’ running mates, the next leading scorer was Thompson, who finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists on 7-of-10 shooting. While the sophomore continued his season-long crusade at the rim, making all seven of his baskets there, Thompson’s rebounding abilities were arguably his most impressive trait on this day. There were multiple times on Sunday where the sophomore outjumped his frontcourt mates, skying to collect the ball off missed shots.

“He single-handedly — with offensive rebounds, cuts to the rim, transition baskets, ball screen defense — single-handedly allowed us to build that lead,” Martin said.

It was a good day for the ‘old guard’ in the Minutemen backcourt. Thompson and Diggins are two of only three players that returned to Amherst after 2022-23, two of only three that made it through a 15-16 season that ended in the first round of the A-10 tournament.

“They’ve embraced each other through heartache,” Martin said. “They said, ‘No, man. We’re going to dig in and we’re going to help you and each other and we’re going to build this.’”

They’re now building with help from the young guards of UMass’ backcourt, a freshman unit led by Jaylen Curry and Robert Davis Jr. Both players have their flaws — Martin mentioned issues with Curry’s “AAU” style of play and Davis’ defensive weakness — but both have given the team crucial stretches in games throughout the season. On Sunday, the duo combined for 17 points on 7-of-19 shooting, finding success off three-pointers and putbacks at the rim.

“I got no issues with those guys,” Martin said. “Those guys come in here every day and they do everything they can and because of [Thompson] and [Diggins’] leadership, those guys are getting better.”

In a season where the Minutemen rank top-60 nationally in scoring their points off close twos, a large part of that can be attributed to the veterans in the post: Cross and Cohen. The guards have contributed on that front as well, though, and on days where UMass’ backcourt can find success outside the paint, the unit provides a total package of skill that can be tough to crack for opposing A-10 guards.

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

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