Tafara Gapare thrills as UMass basketball breezes past Albany

  • UMass freshman Tafara Gapare skies to attempt a block against Albany at the Mullins Center on Monday. CHRIS TUCCI / UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass guard Rahsool Diggins sizes up the Albany defense at the Mullins Center on Monday. CHRIS TUCCI / UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass freshman Tafara Gapare settles in on defense against Albany at the Mullins Center on Monday. CHRIS TUCCI / UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass freshman Tafara Gapare drops in a layup against Albany at the Mullins Center on Monday. CHRIS TUCCI / UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass forward Isaac Kante drops in a layup against Albany at the Mullins Center on Monday. CHRIS TUCCI / UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass freshman Tafara Gapare hammers down an alley-oop on the fast break against Albany at the Mullins Center on Monday. CHRIS TUCCI / UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2022 10:26:32 PM

AMHERST – Mullins Center, meet Tafara Gapare.

UMass’ four-star mystery man from New Zealand introduced himself to the home crowd against Albany on Monday. He caught a fast break alley oop from Dyondre Dominguez slightly below and in front of the rim, whipping it over his head for a two-handed dunk shortly before halftime. Gapare hung on the rim, swaying back as the Great Danes cleared his runway.

It brought the crowd to its feet. A fan in a UMass hockey jersey spun all the way around with his face in his hands. 

That punctuated a dominant final eight minutes of the first half, as UMass grew a nine-point lead to 25 by the halftime buzzer. The Minutemen defeated Albany 87-73 to claim their sixth straight win.

Gapare finished with a team-high 15 points, five steals and a block and drew three charges in the first half, throwing down three highlight reel dunks in the second half. He received an extended run after playing a key part in the Minutemen’s victory at Harvard on Friday.

The Wellington, New Zealand, native entered the game 7 minutes, 52 seconds in and immediately impacted the floor on defense. He missed his first shot before sinking two layups preceding the dunk. Gapare only averaged 6½ minutes per game before Monday and 4½ in the four before Harvard.

He dealt with a visa issue that prevented him from being on campus until the weekend before the season opener.

“Everyone thinks you spend three months thinking maybe you’re not going to be allowed in the country then you get word you’re allowed in the country and you get on a plane and travel 29 hours and you get off the plane and ‘I’m here, let’s go. Put your cape on.’ That’s not the way this works. He had an adjustment period he had to go through,” UMass coach Frank Martin said. “He’s a really talented young man. As he continues to understand what we’re doing, and as he competes and keeps his head in the right place and takes care of his responsibilities, you can see his talent when he goes out and plays.”

Gapare entered the second half at the 13:52 mark. Less than a minute later, he grabbed a defensive rebound, crossed over an Albany defender in the backcourt and dribbled through a clear lane to the basket, rising up for a one-handed hammer dunk from the Atlantic 10 logo just inside the free throw line. That made it 62-42 UMass with 12:55 left.

He added a third jam, two-handed on the fast break with 10:01 left. Dominguez jumped behind him into the poster frame and yelled excitedly. Gapare blocked a jump shot at the 9:15 mark, bouncing it off a Great Danes shooter and gaining possession for the Minutemen.

“You see his ball skills. You see his length. You see his instinct. Passing is probably his best skill right now as a player offensively. He’s got to learn the physicality of the game. He’s got to learn how to play through contact a little bit. He’s not there yet,” Martin said. “He’s in his infancy stage of basketball. We tend to forget because we see someone who can jump and dunk and he’s 6-foot-10 that can also make a three, we seem to forget that sometimes someone like him is still a baby when it comes to basketball. He’s still trying to understand it learn it and know how to impact games.”

The Great Danes (3-7) pulled as close as 16 with 14:02 remaining, but the Minutemen pushed the lead back over 20 over the next four minutes. It reached as many as 27 points 1:58 into the second half after T.J. Weeks Jr. sank a layup.

“They made the game hard. I thought they imposed their will,” said Albany coach Dwa yne Killings, an Amherst Regional grad that played at UMass. “That's one of their mantras of their program. They made it hard for us to to get into the flow, they made the game really difficult for our guards and the lead just expanded, and it was hard to come back.”

Albany made 51.4 percent of its shots after halftime compared to 23.1 before the break. UMass outrebounded the Great Danes 18-16 in the first half, but Albany controlled the boards 24-17 in the second.

“I guess we won the game so there should be something to clap about. We’ve got a team that’s not listening right now. That’s a major problem. They’re content with showing up. They’re not content with the discipline and the relentless effort that it takes to be good,” Martin said. “Unfortunately we’re going to have to learn the lesson the hard way because they’re not listening, and our leadership stinks. It is what it is.”

Six Minutemen reached double figures. In addition to Gapare, Isaac Kante scored 14, Keon Thompson added 11 filling in for point guard Noah Fernandes at the point guard spot, and Brandon Martin, Weeks and Dominguez each scored 1o. 

Fernandes has an ankle sprain, but there’s no structural damage, and it’s not a high ankle sprain.

“The swelling has to be gone, and then it becomes pain tolerance,” Frank Martin said.

UMass distributed 19 assists led by five from Weeks, who also had a team-high eight rebounds. UMass shot 53 percent from the field and only had 12 turnovers. The Minutemen hit 18-of-26 free throws, closing strong after an abysmal 1-for-7 start.

They outscored Albany 50-26 in the paint, and their bench held a 58-36 advantage. UMass’ defense held the Great Danes to 40 percent shooting and forced 17 turnovers, scoring 11 points off them. The Minutemen amassed five blocks and 12 steals.

UMass (7-1) trailed 7-2 early, but  Martin kept them apace with three early jump shots from the elbow. The Minutemen then ripped off a 16-3 run powered by mid range shots to grab an 18-10 lead when RJ Luis sank a layup with 11:15 to halftime.

They followed that with a 13-2 spurt holding Albany to just one  field goal over eight minutes. UMass’ lead ballooned as high as 25 points, punctuated by Gapare’s alley-oop. The Minutemen hit 10 shots in a row and 11 of their last 12 to close the half.

UMass matched its best start to the season since 2013-14, the last time the Minutemen made the NCAA Tournament. They won their first 10 games that season.

But Martin sees structural problems that will bite UMass against the competition they will face and need to beat later in the season.

“Right now I’ve done everything I can to make them understand that we’re not in a good place with how we go about our daily business,” Martin said. “We’ve got no enthusiasm for what we do. We’ve got no discipline for what we do. It’s gotta get fixed. I got hired to build a program. I didn’t get hired to win a game on a Monday.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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