UMass basketball: First-half hole too big to overcome as Minutemen end season with 73-59 loss to VCU in Atlantic 10 quarterfinals

UMass’ Keon Thompson (5) tries to hold possession of the ball under pressure from VCU during the Minutemen’s Atlantic 10 Conference quarterfinal game on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

UMass’ Keon Thompson (5) tries to hold possession of the ball under pressure from VCU during the Minutemen’s Atlantic 10 Conference quarterfinal game on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. PHOTO BY CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass’ Jaylen Curry (2) tries to drive to the basket under pressure from VCU during the Minutemen’s Atlantic 10 Conference quarterfinal game on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

UMass’ Jaylen Curry (2) tries to drive to the basket under pressure from VCU during the Minutemen’s Atlantic 10 Conference quarterfinal game on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. PHOTO BY CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2024 6:45 PM

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Following his fourth 3-pointer of the second half, Rahsool Diggins helped cut the UMass men’s basketball team’s once 17-point deficit to six with 4 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the game.

The Minutemen earned a stop on the other end when Jaylen Curry drew a charge on VCU’s Max Shulga. Their next two possessions were a missed 3 and a Matt Cross turnover, which the Rams turned into a layup on the other end to extend their lead back to eight and put them in the driver’s seat with two minutes to go.

Diggins’ deep shot accounted for the last points UMass would score the rest of the way, as the Minutemen watched their season come to an end with a 73-59 loss to VCU in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals at Barclays Center on Thursday afternoon.

“Much credit to VCU, they obviously came out and outplayed us in that first half,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said. “The hole was too big to crawl out of against a team that doesn’t really turn the ball over. My guys emptied their tank, from day one this year. They’ve left it on the court every single time we’ve taken the court and today was no different. Unfortunately we had some empty possessions once we got it to six, and we couldn’t get closer.”

Four of UMass’ nine turnovers came in the final seven minutes of the game. With the game well within reach at under 10 points for nearly the entire latter portion of the second half, those miscues came at the worst time.

“That’s the problem when you’re coming back from such a big deficit,” Martin said. “You get late in the game and you put yourself in a place where you can go win, but you don’t have the [ability] to overcome empty possessions… We just couldn’t finish plays.”

Those empty trips on the offensive end occurred in spurts throughout the contest, not just at the end. UMass went a near seven-minute stretch midway through the first without a field goal, and again couldn’t find a bucket from the 6:48 mark until a Marqui Worthy driving layup with 2 minutes and change ended the four-minute drought.

VCU’s zone gave the Minutemen trouble, and their 25 percent split from the field at the half alluded to that.

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“People play zone to prevent the ball getting in the paint,” Martin said. “They’re all 6-foot-5 and above on the perimeter, so it makes it challenging on our smaller players to pass the ball into the zone and shoot the ball over the zone. Give them credit for committing to that zone and believing in it.”

It wasn’t just offensive struggles. UMass couldn’t defend without fouling essentially all game. VCU was in the bonus early on in the first half, and enjoyed success from the charity stripe when the Minutemen put them there.

The Rams cashed in 13 first-half free throws, with 10 of them coming in a three-minute span to add to their lead.

“We created the problem,” Martin said. “That stretch in the first half when the game got away from us, we committed six hand-check fouls in seven possessions – gave them 10 free throws. That’s when the game went from four, five, six to 14, 15 or whatever it was.”

Facing a 42-25 deficit coming out of the locker room, Diggins had that look in his eyes.

The junior guard exploded in the second half, scoring 20 of his game-high 21 points over the final 20 minutes. Diggins – the Atlantic 10 co-Most Improved Player of the Year – completely took the game over, and put UMass on his back as no other player on the team scored more than five in the frame.

“Just trusting the process, trusting coach Frank and the staff and not letting go of the rope,” Diggins said. “[I just] wanted to come back and win the game… We [were] down 17, I knew we had to push the pace and create opportunities for my teammates and myself to get us out of the hole.”

Yet it wasn’t enough for the Minutemen.

Josh Cohen finished with 14 points and six rebounds, Jayden Ndjigue chipped in eight points and seven boards (five offensive) and Matt Cross put up seven points, eight rebounds and five assists.

Keon Thompson scored five points on just 2-for-11 shooting and Jaylen Curry added two points on 1-for-3 shooting. Aside from Diggins’ second-half takeover, UMass backcourt picked a bad time for their worst collective game – as the three of them combined to shoot 0-for-9 in the first half.

Martin said postgame that both Curry (toe) and Thompson (shoulder, ankle) were battling through pain on Thursday.

“For us to be good, we have to play a really, really physical brand of basketball,” Martin said. “Our guys were beat up. At the end of the year, we were beat up. We had some guys that were hurt and still tried to play. It’s hard to make shots when your legs aren’t there. You don’t just walk in and play Shulga, [Joe] Bamisile and all these guys who have been in college for 100 years and show up and say, ‘I got it.’ But our guys emptied the tank.”

This year’s UMass team put everything into building the program back to what it once was, and Martin said that’s exactly why each player felt pain and disappointment after the loss.

The Minutemen (20-11, 11-7 A-10) still finished with their most wins in 10 years and earned their best conference tournament seeding since 2008.

Frank Martin’s program is on the rise.

“When you fully commit to something, unfortunately you get to deal with all of the emotions,” Martin said. “Sometimes you deal with the emotion of winning, sometimes you deal with the emotion of losing. There’s a trophy that’s gonna be put on the table on Sunday, and these guys wanted to play for that.”