UMass basketball: Minutemen travel to last-place La Salle on Saturday

UMass guard Keon Thompson (5) puts in a breakaway layup earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass guard Keon Thompson (5) puts in a breakaway layup earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-16-2024 6:05 PM

There’s nothing quite like a huge road win in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

The UMass men’s basketball team traveled down to Virginia and handled league-leading Richmond on Wednesday, defeating them 69-59 after being up as many as 17 points in the second half. That result was unquestionably the Minutemen’s best victory resume-wise on their schedule (their only Quad-1 victory), but it was also perhaps their most important win for the overall mindset of the team.

That is, because UMass (16-8, 7-5) proved that it can not just hang with the best, but beat the best – and do it as a team. Four players scored in double figures for the Minutemen, with A-10 Player-of-the-Year candidate Matt Cross’ monster 16-point, 13-rebound double-double leading the way. Keon Thompson and Jaylen Curry (off the bench) tossed in 13 points apiece and Josh Cohen added 11 points and seven boards. UMass overcame 38 percent shooting and a 1-for-9 game from its highest-volume 3-point shooter in Rahsool Diggins.

The Minutemen out-scored Richmond’s bench by 10 and out-rebounded the Spiders 46-29. The shaky shooting and below-average individual performances from some was made up for by the grit and overall buy-in as a unit, and that’s what has helped this group experience a drastic turn around from last season.

Sure, UMass has taken a clear step – or two – in the right direction compared to where it was a year ago. That’s obvious considering the Minutemen have already won more games (16) through 24 contests in 2023-24 than they did all of last season (15).

But if UMass wants to return to the top of the Atlantic 10 as it was during the glory days, the Minutemen need to win games where they’re heavily favored – such as this weekend’s road contest against conference bottom feeder La Salle (UMass is a 6½ point road favorite). 

While college teams that earn an emotional upset win, like the one at Richmond, typically follow it up with a letdown, UMass can’t fall into that trap. And if the Minutemen want the double bye that’s suddenly become a real possibility, a win against the Explorers (2-10 in A-10, worst in the conference) is essential.

La Salle has lost nine of its last 10 contests, and only three of those losses were by single digits. The Minutemen accounted for one of those lopsided losses, roughing up the Explorers 81-65 at the Mullins Center back on Jan. 10 – a game dominated by Cohen (24 and 10) and Daniel Hankins-Sanford (10 and 13).

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With how Cross has been playing of late, and considering head coach Frank Martin said himself that Cohen seems to be bought back in after a rough stretch, UMass should dominate the front court once again. La Salle’s top five leading scorers are all guards, and it relies on its frontcourt about as little as anyone in the conference. The Minutemen’s calling this season goes without saying, it’s their relentless effort on the glass.

They out-rebounded La Salle 44-31 the first time around, and if they do it again, they should be able to get past Khalil Brantley (15.5 points per game), Jhamir Brickus (13.9 ppg) and the Explorers on Saturday. Tip-off is at 2 p.m. and the game will be streamed on ESPN-plus.

Minutewomen host VCU on Saturday afternoon

The UMass women’s basketball team looks to avoid its 13th consecutive loss this weekend, but its opponent is 21-4 VCU, which comes into the Mullins Center in the midst of a heated race for a top-four seed in the Atlantic 1o conference tournament.

The game is set to begin at 1 p.m. and can be streamed on ESPN-plus.