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Feisty UMass falls short 73-67 at Rhode Island

  • UMass center Tre Mitchell, left, and Rhode Island Jermaine Harris lunge for a loose ball during the first half, Tuesday in Kingston. THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL/KRIS CRAIG

  • Rhode Island’s Jeff Dowtin reaches in to knock the ball from the hands of UMass guard Keon Clergeot, Tuesday in Kingston. THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL/KRIS CRAIG

  • UMass guard Carl Pierre knocks the ball from Rhode Island’s Tyrese Martin, Tuesday in Kingston. THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL/KRIS CRAIG

Staff Writer
Published: 2/4/2020 10:35:23 PM

KINGSTON, R.I. — After a dud Saturday at Davidson, UMass was on a mission to prove something Tuesday night.

From the opening tip against Rhode Island, there was a different intensity level with the Minutemen as they embraced the battle with one of the best teams in the Atlantic 10. They weren’t backing down from the fight – both figuratively and literally – as the teams jawed at one another for 40 minutes on the court then met at half court in a scuffle after the game.

The Rams got the last laugh with a 73-67 victory over the Minutemen at the Ryan Center, but that edge was a much-needed attribute for UMass.

“I wouldn’t say there was more back-and-forth, we wanted to come in here and compete tonight,” UMass junior Carl Pierre said. “Especially after our last performance, we wanted to come here, play hard and compete, and we did that for the most part.”

UMass (9-14, 3-7 Atlantic 10) never let Rhode Island pull away for the first 35 minutes, clawing its way back in striking distance every time the Rams threatened to distance themselves. Yet even after falling down by 15 with 2 minutes, 38 seconds left, the Minutemen didn’t make life easy on the Rams (17-5, 9-1). They kept the pressure on Rhode Island and almost forced the home team from folding.

The Rams led by 10 with a little over a minute left and UMass came out with the design to not foul Fatts Russell, but would anybody else. Russell caught the inbounds pass, but was trapped just over half court leading to a steal by Pierre and a layup for Samba Diallo. Russell then had the ball stolen by Keon Clergeot on the next inbounds pass and Antwan Walker missed a free throw leading to a Tre Mitchell layup with 26 seconds left.

That was the closest the Minutemen would get as Rhode Island made its free throws down the stretch before Pierre hit a 3 with nine seconds left for the final margin.

“We put together a gutsy performance today that just wasn’t enough in the end,” coach Matt McCall said.

Mitchell was the only thing working for UMass on offense, and he became even more of a focal point for the Minutemen. At one point, the Minutemen threw the ball to Mitchell in the post on 10 straight possessions, allowing the freshman big man to make the decisions about how to proceed. For the most part, the answer was to take the ball to the basket where Rhode Island didn’t have a response.

The freshman center finished with a career-high 30 points, 19 of which came in a dominant second-half performance. In one 10-minute stretch, Mitchell scored every UMass point and nearly matched Rhode Island shot for shot as the deficit only grew by one point.

“We were just trying to make it a point to force them to double team me,” Mitchell said. “A good portion of the game, they were late on their doubles or not doubling me at all, so just getting the ball to me inside and forcing them to double team me creates a lot more for everybody else.”

The problem for UMass was that no one else seemed to be able to feed off Mitchell’s success. The rest of the Minutemen shot 16 of 41 from the field, including 3 of 17 from behind the 3-point arc, and couldn’t seem to hit the open shots that were coming to them. When they did go in, UMass struggled to replicate that success on future possessions, something that McCall said is the next step for his team.

“With a young team, we’ve got to still continue to learn,” McCall said. “If we come down the floor and (Pierre) just hit his last shot, we’ve got to find him again that next possession down. ... We’ve just got to continue to learn that, but you have to take what the defense gives you.”

On the other end of the court, UMass came out in a 2-3 zone and stuck in some version of zone defense for the entirety of the game. It didn’t stop the Rams from getting out in transition and scoring 14 points off UMass’ 12 turnovers. It also didn’t stop Rhode Island from converting on its offensive rebounds as it scored 17 points off nine second chances.

However, it did slow down Russell and Jeff Dowtin in the half court and kept the Rams out of the paint for the most part. Rhode Island struggled for long stretches when forced to play in the half court as the zone kept it to the perimeter and forced them to make jump shots.

“I thought it would help us with how they play,” McCall said. “With Dowtin and Fatts out there, they’re so good off the bounce and getting in the lane. We just wanted to keep them off balanced, our biggest goal in the game was can we keep them off balanced the entire night. It worked until they figured it out late in the game, but it definitely kept them off balanced for the most part.”

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