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 wins wild game in final seconds against George Mason

Rahsool Diggins hits game-winning free throw with under a second to go
Matt Skillings
Daily Collegian (2024)

Fans of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team are no strangers to wild endings. They’ve been on the wrong end of a handful of those this season. But against George Mason, they witnessed one of the craziest final moments in the college basketball landscape this year as UMass beat the Patriots 66-65.

George Mason (15-7, 4-5 Atlantic 10) had the ball coming out of a timeout for the final possession with 17 seconds left. Woody Newton’s three hit the iron and the Minutemen (14-7, 5-4 A-10) got a huge stop, but nobody secured the loose ball as it bounced around inside the perimeter. Five bodies were on the floor. Eventually, it rolled Jayden Ndjigue’s way with an open court in front of him, but he couldn’t corral it, lost it, and the Patriots flew the other way for a Baraka Okojie layup with one second left. This play tied the game, 65-65.

“I’m looking there and all I can think of is like, ‘you got to be kidding me.’ Thinking a different word, but I’m not going to say that one here,” head coach Frank Martin said. The Minutemen lost at the buzzer twice in conference play; suddenly, it seemed like they would collapse in the final second again, with George Mason carrying all the momentum into a potential overtime.

Right after the bucket, UMass inbounded the ball and Rahsool Diggins was about to attempt a full court heave when he inexplicably got fouled by the star of the game, Keyshawn Hall, as the buzzer sounded. The crowd didn’t cheer for a split second. Everyone was confused as Hall perhaps misread the score, and his foul sent Diggins to the line to shoot two.

“I feel as though the man above owed us this one,” Diggins said.

Diggins made the first one, and the largest Mullins Center crowd of the season (4,418) erupted. Diggins missed the second one on purpose and time expired, with UMass taking the close win in a crucial A-10 game.

“When we go on a run or we hit a shot and you come down and the crowd just, you know, stands up or they increased the noise level in that arena,” Ndjigue said. “It just gives you that much more confidence to make the play, and it kind of almost makes you like sharper on defense, and just makes you more alert knowing that you have this whole community behind you.”

The first half was ugly, but the second half was a physical battle with nine lead changes. Clutch time was no easier on the heart of fans than the final seconds. Down by one with under four minutes to go, UMass had its biggest sequence yet: two consecutive threes, one by Ndjigue and Diggins, to give the Minutemen a 61-56 lead with 2:58 left. George Mason called a timeout, and the fans went crazy.

“I believe the ball rewards whoever works at things,” Martin said. “A lot of people have told [Ndjigue] during his career, ‘you’re not a shooter. You’re not a shooter. You’re not a shooter.’ And I’ve never said that to him. But he comes in, him and [Diggins] spend more time shooting balls in the gym than probably the rest of the team combined. And it’s only fitting that those two guys made those back to back threes.”

Then with under two minutes to go, Hall decided to take over. He scored and converted the free throw with 1:35 left to make it a three-point game. After UMass got an offensive rebound, Keon Thompson traveled with 46 seconds to go and Hall went the other way and scored again. One-point game. Finally, Ndjigue went to the line and made 1-of-2 attempts, bringing Mason to the chaotic final possession.

George Mason made four of its last five shots while UMass didn’t make a field goal in the final three minutes, only free throws.

Hall led the game with 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Virginia Tech transfer Darius Maddox followed him with 14 points. For UMass, a group effort saw four players score in the double digits, led by Josh Cohen’s 17 points and six rebounds (five offensive) and Diggins’ 14 points on 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.

Ndjigue’s performance can’t go understated. He finished with 10 points, six rebounds, five assists and no turnovers. He added a block and two steals, and shot 3-for-4 from the line in crunch time. Still, he almost cost UMass the game by failing to secure that loose ball at the end, and said he heard from Martin after it happened.

The Patriots’ interior defense ranked 13th in the nation against two-point shots and it showed on Saturday. The Minutemen couldn’t get anything going in the first half despite having possibly the best frontcourt duo in the conference in Cohen alongside Matt Cross. UMass shot 10-of-30 and turned it over 11 times in one of its ugliest first halves in a while. If not for the team’s gigantic rebounding advantage throughout the whole game, George Mason would’ve ran away with it. The hosts outrebounded Mason 40-26 and 18-10 on offensive boards.

“[George Mason has] got tremendous length, they’re really long, and they do a great job of switching,” Martin said. “And they played basically that matchup zone, like most of the time today, and then 1-3-1 when they weren’t in the matchup zone. And then they beg you, because of their length, to drive the ball between two players … I didn’t do a very good job coaching us in practice to prepare for that. And that’s on me. But in the first half, I spent the whole first half saying, ‘stop driving it, throw it in there.'”

After starting the contest on an 8-2 run and shooting 3-for-3 from the field, the Minutemen made just one of their next 16 shots. The Patriots then managed an 8-0 run over five long minutes, and controlled the flow of the game until the break.

But UMass came out of the break an entirely different team, with a 7-0 run capped off by a Diggins triple to take a 33-32 lead early in the second frame. One of the biggest changes out of halftime was getting turnovers under control. It allowed both the Minutemen and the crowd back in the game.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Martin said. “We’re working really hard to create a winning mentality, a winning approach, and we’re doing it with some young bucks, man. And then we got lucky. I mean, we worked our tails off, I’m not trying to take away, but we got lucky that somebody made a mistake and that allowed us to figure out a way to make a free throw.”

UMass goes back on the road for a matchup against St. Bonaventure on Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m.

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

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