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 falls to VCU in A-10 quarterfinals

17-point halftime deficit too much for Minutemen to overcome
Kayla Wong
Daily Collegian (2023)

After falling to Richmond by 33 in the opening game of the 2023 Atlantic 10 Tournament, there was nowhere the Massachusetts basketball team could possibly go other than up.

In its first game at Barclays Center since that moment, it looked like UMass (20-11, 11-7 A-10) was going up, but up in a sense like they took the elevator from the basement to the ground level. The Minutemen’s offense in the first half was as close to non-existent as it gets in a postseason game. The team went 7-of-28 from the floor and 1-of-9 on three-point attempts en route to a 17-point halftime deficit.

But as it has all season, when the going got tough, UMass battled and gave it all on the court. On one of its largest stages of the year, this team showed that it’s not what it was last March. The battle ended with a 73-59 loss to VCU, likely ending the program’s season (pending a farfetched but not impossible postseason bid). But in the process of making the deficit as close as six late in the game, the Minutemen rode the elevator a couple extra floors. Last year UMass trailed Richmond by 13 at half before losing by 33. This year it trailed VCU by 17, but made the game tighter in the end, not more lopsided. That’s the difference between the 2022-23 roster and a group whose mentality Martin has praised all season long.

“Our guys emptied the tank, man,” Martin said. “I wish I could be here with them on Sunday. Obviously we didn’t have that opportunity but I know they’ve made coaching for me a whole lot of fun. I know showing up to work everyday is a lot of fun. When you’re coaching for 41 years, you don’t get to always say that. I’ve been lucky, I’ve said that most of my career. These guys have made it a lot of fun for me and my staff to come in every day and commit to them.”

After losing to UMass by 22 roughly three weeks ago in what VCU head coach Ryan Odom called his team’s “F game,” the Rams came out firing in the teams’ second meeting of the season. After missing its first three attempts, VCU went 12-of-19 from the floor for the remainder of the first half, peppering UMass with makes from all over the floor. While Zeb Jackson led the team with 11 first-half points, Joe Bamisile had the more impressive baskets, nailing three 3-pointers at opportune times.

On defense, a high-pressure Rams zone flustered the Minutemen at points, with visible confusion and frustration seen on players’ faces. While it didn’t see a ton of action in the first half, it did contribute to UMass’ extremely slow start and also helped to slow down a fast-paced offense.

“We knew we wanted to play [the zone]. We were going to play it regardless [of foul trouble],” Odom said.

“Anyone that knows anything about basketball knows that people play zone to prevent the ball [from] getting in the paint,” Martin said. [The VCU guards are] all 6-foot-5 and above on the perimeter, so it makes it challenging for our smaller players to pass the ball into the zone and to shoot the ball over the zone. And give them credit for committing to that zone and believing in it.”

The success of the zone lessened as the game pressed on, but its effects were there. Notably, the Minutemen’s top performers were limited in their impacts, as Cross and Cohen would combine to make five shots on just 14 attempts.

With their scoring largely taken away and Keon Thompson having a tough shooting performance, it took a near-superhuman effort from Rahsool Diggins in the second half to bring UMass back into the game. The junior guard scored 20 of his 21 points in the game’s final 20 minutes, hitting four threes to thaw an ice-cold day for the team on the perimeter.

After maintaining a lead between seven and 12 throughout the middle portion of the second half, the Rams pulled away late due to back-to-back squandered Minutemen possessions that occurred with roughly three and a half minutes remaining. Down six and with all of the momentum, UMass created a somewhat good look from three for Diggins, the hot hand. The junior’s attempt landed a few inches short. After a good defensive stop, Matt Cross then had the ball wide-open in the mid-post, but opted instead to dump it to frontcourt mate Josh Cohen. The ball deflected off the senior’s fingertips and out of bounds.

Past Diggins, Cohen was the only other Minuteman to score in double digits, using the free throw line to get eight of his 14 points. The senior big has one season of eligibility remaining, opening the door for a potential “revenge tour” if the Lincroft, New Jersey native wants it.

Regardless of the result, it’s been a successful season for UMass. The program hit 20 wins for the first time in a decade and received an automatic bid to the A-10 quarterfinals for the first time since 2008. With a youthful roster and no one technically out of eligibility, retaining a large portion of this team could set high expectations in Amherst next season.

“You get away from the disappointment of the present moment and then you embrace the collective journey,” Martin said. “You don’t overreact to bad days and over-celebrate the good days. You got to understand that the journey’s long and it’s complicated.”

“Were we perfect? No. Were we as good as we needed to be? Probably not. But at the end of the day, they emptied the tank. And as a coach, that’s all I can ever ask. Now we got to fill up that tank again and grow and get better for whatever the future has for us.”

The Minutemen finish 2023-24 at 20-11, going 11-7 in conference play. The Rams move on to play Saint Joseph’s in the semifinals Saturday.

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

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