Minutemen show resiliency despite youthful roster

Staff Writer
Published: 11/9/2019 8:10:31 PM

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — UMass has had some iconic road wins under Matt McCall.

In his first year as coach, the Minutemen stunned Dayton, 62-60, with just seven players. Last season, UMass stormed back from an 18-point deficit to knock off Providence. However, those are the only two victories in true road games UMass has had under McCall.

Saturday’s game at Fairfield was the first chance to see how the new-look Minutemen would respond to adversity on the road. Despite not playing their best and trailing by seven at halftime, UMass withstood all of the Stags’ runs for a 62-60 victory. Although it might seem like a small accomplishment, McCall said it was an important lesson for his team to learn how to win in college basketball.

“There’s going to be nights like this where we’ve got to find ways to grind it out,” McCall said. “Obviously we haven’t been very successful on the road in the last two years, so to find a way to win on the road. I told the guys in the tunnel, ‘They’re trying to win, too, they’re not just going to give you the game, you’ve got to go take it.’ It’s just part of the maturation process with this group.”

These games can often set the tone for a season, though, especially when greater adversity hits later in the year when games are more important. The memories of past games can often have a psychological effect on a team – both positively and negatively – and freshman guard Sean East said going through Saturday’s experience together will only strengthen this group when the tough times come later this season.

“It’s very big so that when we get later in the season, we know how to handle it, we’ve been there before,” East said. “It’s good that we faced it early so when it’s tournament time, we know what to do.”

DOWN A MITCHELL — UMass was without freshman guard Kolton Mitchell due to a wrist injury. Mitchell was on the bench during the game with his left wrist in a soft cast and a timetable for his return is unknown.

The guard’s absence put more pressure on East, who became the Minutemen’s primary ball handler and led the team with nearly 36 minutes played against Fairfield. East responded with 14 points and seven assists Saturday, contributing on nine of the Minutemen’s 14 baskets in the second half to lead UMass to the win.

“With Kolton’s injury, that’s a lot on his shoulders,” McCall said. “He stepped up in the second half and played a terrific floor game. He got guys the ball in the places they needed to get it to be successful.”

East said he knows more is being expected of him with Mitchell out of the lineup, but the onus to fill that void falls on more players than just him. He said most of the freshman guards will have bigger roles while Mitchell is hurt and that everyone needs to be ready to contribute every night because no one knows who will make the winning play.

“I just keep getting in better shape every day in practice and working out on my own,” East said. “Some nights I might have to play 40, some nights I might only play 25. We’re missing Kolton right now, so they’re going to lean on me a lot, but when he comes back I’ll go back to 25 minutes a game. But as of right now, everybody’s roles step up, everybody has to be ready.”

FLYING SANTOS — While the attention was on T.J. Weeks for making three 3-pointers during the 13-2 run that gave UMass its first lead of the second half, freshman Preston Santos had the unsung play of the night.

After Carl Pierre missed a 3-pointer that would have brought the Minutemen within one, Santos tipped the rebound away from Jesus Cruz toward the UMass bench. He hustled past Cruz and pushed the ball to Weeks to keep the play alive, a sequence that ended with East driving to the hoop for an easy layup.

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