Extra effort pays off as UMass runs past La Salle, 85-66

  • UMass sophomore center Tre Mitchell makes a layup in practice at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2020 4:55:37 PM

Tre Mitchell and Carl Pierre launched themselves to the floor with no hesitation to save a loose ball.

The Minutemen led by four 5 minutes, 30 seconds into the second half of their Atlantic 10 Conference opener Wednesday at La Salle. The Explorers missed a 3-pointer and Jhamir Brickus jumped into the corner to save it. He eyed Jared Kimbrough on the left wing. Mitchell tracked the pass through the air and sprawled out to tip the ball away.

UMass guard Noah Fernandes gained control on the ground and tried to shovel it to Pierre. Kimbrough swiped it away, but Pierre dove again to secure possession with a pass to Dibaji Walker.

After the chaos, Pierre bounced a pass to Mitchell in the post. He sealed Kimbrough and sank a left-handed floater with Kimbrough hanging onto his right arm.

The resulting free throw pushed UMass’ lead to seven, its largest of the game to that point.

“That’s demoralizing for the other team when you make those level of effort plays. That’s how you win games,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “Conference games are won with your effort and that’s exactly what won us this game.”

That play keyed a 15-3 run that UMass never looked back from in an 85-66 victory at Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia.

Mitchell was central to the spurt, scoring 12 of his career-high 37 points during that 3:36 run. The sophomore bounced back from a poor outing Sunday at Northeastern, where he only scored 10 points and shot 30 percent from the field.

“We did a great job of establishing him on the block. They didn’t double team him and he was able to operate,” McCall said. “If a team’s not going to double team him he needs to lead us in shot attempts, no question. That’s how good he is down there with his back to the basket.”

The preseason all-conference first-team selection eclipsed her Northeastern performance in the game’s first 17:22.

Mitchell broke 30 for the third time in his last four games by powering through Kimbrough for a left-handed layup with 8:43 left. He tied his career high of 34 (set against Rhode Island in last season’s finale) on a thunderous, two-handed dunk 4:30 later.

Mitchell finished his scoring with his second 3 of the game, splashing it after a fake pass to clear some space. The basket put UMass up 76-58 with 3:29 left.

“Some of the moves he made, some of the catches, the ball’s being thrown up in the air to him and he’s got four, five bodies draped all over him and for him to finish the way he does,” McCall said. “I’ll say it again: he’s one of the best – if not the best big man in the country.”

UMass (2-1, 1-0 A-10) responded to its first loss of the season after not passing often or well enough against the Huskies. The Minutemen assisted three of their first four baskets and led 10-4 after 3:16. Then they reverted back to the isolation plays that troubled them, compiling just three assists over the next 16 minutes. UMass led 36-35 at halftime.

“I thought their tempo press was what caused us a lot of problems in the first half,” McCall said. “It’s a simple game. We tried to complicate it too much.”

The Minutemen broke La Salle’s press then too often tried to set up plays rather than taking advantage of a not quite set defense. After halftime, UMass regularly employed a side ball screen then rolled Mitchell to the basket with a shooter behind him to easily pass to in case of a double team.

Mitchell scored 25 points after halftime, and the team distributed 13 assists. The lead ballooned to as much as 21.

The Minutemen shot 54.5 percent in the second half and outrebounded La Salle 23-14. They snagged four offensive rebounds on one play with less than five minutes remaining up 18 points, keeping the ball away from the Explorers and burning clock.

All 14 of UMass’ fast-break points came after halftime.

“Their pace won out in the first half, and our pace won out in the second half,” McCall said. “That was really the difference.”

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

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