Five best moments of UMass’ winter sports season

  • UMass goaltender Filip Lindberg is shown during a game against Northeastern on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019 in Boston. Winslow Townson

  • John Leonard of UMass, right, moves the puck against Vermont defenders Derek Lodermeier, left, and Owen Grant, Thursday, Mar. 5, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass freshman center Tre Mitchell, right, drives past Jermaine Harris, of Rhode Island, on March 7 at the Mullins Center. J. Anthony Roberts

  • Sam Breen, right, of UMass, shoots after getting past Kyla Whitehead, of Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2020 3:24:48 PM

March is when memories are made for winter sports programs. It’s the month when championships are awarded and heroes are crowned in the biggest moments of the season.

We were robbed of those chances this year with the COVID-19 pandemic grinding the sports scene to a halt, but UMass still had plenty of remarkable moments during the winter season. There were many difficult choices in limiting this list down to five – notably the decision to not include the women’s indoor track team capturing an Atlantic 10 title – but these felt like the five biggest moments of 2020 for UMass’ winter sports.

Lindberg outduels Knight

In the first of three meetings between these top-10 hockey foes, Filip Lindberg stole the show at Conte Forum on Jan. 10 for UMass. The sophomore goalie stood on his head in making a career-best 41 stops to preserve a monumental 3-1 win for the Minutemen over Boston College. He made a stellar glove save on likely national rookie of the year Alex Newhook in the second period then stopped a pair of odd-man breaks with tremendous agility while stopping all 17 shots he faced in the third period.

After a disappointing road trip in Denver the week before, a Hockey East win over a top-five foe was exactly what UMass needed in the moment, and Lindberg provided it. It also proved to be a comfort that UMass had at least one goalie that could steal a game against an elite opponent, something the Minutemen never really had to worry about during last year’s historic season.

Leonard dazzles in Providence

Honestly, you could make the case that John Leonard’s hat trick two weeks later against UMass-Lowell deserves this spot, but that victory was way more complicated than it needed to be. On Feb. 8 in Providence, Leonard was the entire UMass offense in a 5-1 win against the Friars. He opened the scoring by weaving his way through the Providence defense in a manner few forwards could at the collegiate level, even recovering the puck in stride after temporarily losing it. He scored again short-handed after taking two laps in the neutral zone without any pressure.

He added his hat trick goal with another great solo effort to make the game 4-1 then added a power-play assist with a pinpoint accurate pass from the blue line to Jack Suter at the back post for a tap-in. This was the moment the Amherst native’s name was fully entrenched in the Hobey Baker conversation.

Minutemen rally against Billikens

UMass was a disjointed mess on offense in the first half against Saint Louis on Feb. 18, and trailed by as many as 16 points at the Mullins Center. But the second half performance from the Minutemen was inspiring as they battled back to tie the game then held off the Billikens when it mattered most. Carl Pierre got a big shot to fall that gave UMass the lead for good inside the final two minutes to complete the comeback.

The victory came just three days after the near-miss against Dayton at home when Tre Mitchell outshined Obi Toppin for most of the day, and a sluggish start could have spelled trouble for a young squad. Instead, the freshmen showed the fortitude and resilience that made the Minutemen such a difficult team to play against in February, and rallied for a season-defining win.

Minutewomen smother Bonnies

It would be easy to point to the record-extending win over La Salle on Jan. 15 that gave UMass 11 straight wins as a better moment, but nothing showed progress like the beatdown of St. Bonaventure in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The Bonnies walked into the Mullins Center on March 3 oblivious to what was about to transpire over the next two hours in Amherst. UMass led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter and it grew to 29 points at halftime, the type of domination the Minutewomen have rarely demonstrated against a Division I opponent. The Minutewomen held the Bonnies scoreless for 7½ minutes in the first quarter and then an additional five minutes in the second quarter with suffocating defense.

This all came in the first home A10 Tournament game for the program in 22 years after the team’s best finish in conference play in more than a decade. To add the cherry on top, the 72-54 win was the 20th victory of the season for the Minutewomen, tying the program record set by the 1995-96 squad.

Tre to the rescue

There might not be a fitting final image of the UMass athletics season than Tre Mitchell’s heroic effort against Rhode Island on March 7. The Minutemen lost the game on a controversial foul called against Mitchell in the waning seconds, but Mitchell did about everything else that night to give UMass a chance. He scored the Minutemen’s final 10 points of the game, making big play after big play to rally UMass back from a 12-point second-half deficit to take the lead three separate times in the final 71 seconds.

The freshman center scored a season-best 34 points – knocking down an impressive 6 of 8 from 3-point range – and added 12 rebounds to put an exclamation point on a season in which he was a second-team all-Atlantic 10 selection and the league’s rookie of the year. UMass finished 8-10 in the league this year but it could have been 9-9 because of that performance, one that should be a great omen about the future of this program with its rising star.

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