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UMass visits Charlotte in the hunt for first place in Atlantic 10

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the University of Massachusetts lost to George Washington two weeks ago, the idea of first place in the Atlantic 10 seemed pretty distant.

The Minutemen were 2-2, while Butler and Virginia Commonwealth were running away from the pack. But the Bulldogs and Rams have come back to Earth and UMass has won back-to-back games leaving the Minutemen (14-5, 4-2 A-10 ) one of seven teams tied for first place with two conference losses.

UMass will play Charlotte (16-4, 4-2), another two-loss team, Saturday at 2 p.m.

After beating La Salle in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Minuteman coach Derek Kellogg liked his team’s approach of late.

“We’re playing harder for longer now and I think we’re competing better,” Kellogg said. “But until you get a big win like that on the road and then have to play another game, you don’t know exactly how they’re going to respond. But I think their attitudes have been good. Any time you can win on the road and maybe get two of them would be great.”

UMass is 6-1 on the road this season.

“That was a big win. It established us as a road presence. With our schedule all year, we’re prepared to be a road team,” forward Terrell Vinson said. “We’re just trying to go out there and execute our game plan.”

The 49ers raced out of the gate, opening the year 9-0 and winning the Great Alaska Shootout championship along the way. They fell at Miami and Florida State, but still finished nonconference play at 12-2. Charlotte opened league play with three straight wins, but it’s lost two of its last three, including Saturday’s 82-54 loss at George Washington.

The 49ers are 10-1 at home but against UMass, they’ll be without DeMario Mayfield, who was suspended indefinitely Wednesday for violations of athletic department policy. The 6-foot-5 junior guard leads Charlotte in scoring with 11.7 points per game. He has averaged 14.3 per game in conference play.

Kellogg thought Mayfield’s absence would lead Charlotte to feature its big men.

“I think they’ll jam the ball even more inside and give their big guys even more touches,” he said. “We’d like them to get less touches.”

Kellogg has seen up close what happens when Chris Braswell, the 49ers’ 6-foot-9 big men, gets too many touches. Braswell had 31 points and nine rebounds against UMass last year and is averaging 11.5 points per game this year.

“Hopefully he doesn’t do what he did to us last year, and take over the game in stretches,” Kellogg said. “He’s a good player. He’s always given us trouble and a lot of other teams trouble.”

Vinson said keeping Braswell from getting position would be key in slowing him down.

“If you don’t try to fight with him for post position, you’re pretty much at his mercy,” he said. “Don’t let him catch it deep. You have to push him away from the places he likes to catch the ball.”

Willie Clayton has been a presence inside as well. The 6-foot-7 freshman is averaging 8.3 points and a team-best 7.4 rebounds.

Charlotte leads the A-10 defensively in field goal percentage (37.8) and 3-point percentage (30.2).

LAST TRIP TO CHARLOTTE — This will be the Minutemen’s last trip to Charlotte, at least as conference rivals. The 49ers are starting a football program and are leaving the A-10 after this season to join Conference USA.

UMass is 5-4, including 3-2 at Halton Arena, all-time against Charlotte in Atlantic 10 play.

MISCELLANEOUS — Vinson, a Baltimore native and big Ravens fan, was excited for Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“I know they’re going to go out there and play hard,” Vinson said. “The best team will win.” ... Several players met former NBA star Allen Iverson, who was staying in the same Charlotte hotel as the team.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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