Rhode Island bullies UMass basketball in the paint to hand Minutemen 4th straight loss

  • UMass coach Matt McCall watches the Minutemen on Satruday at the Mullins Center against  CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Rhode Island center Makhel Mitchell contests a Javohn Garcia attempt Saturday at the Mullins Center. The Rams prevailed 81-68. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass guard Noah Fernandes shoots a 3 against Rhode Island on Saturday at the Mullins Center. The Minutemen made 54.2 percent of their triples but fell 81-68. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS—

  • UMass guard Noah Ferndandes attempts a layup with Rhode Island’s Ishmael Legggett and Makhi Mitchell defending. The Minutemen fell 81-68. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/15/2022 9:35:27 PM

AMHERST – Might as well paint the Mullins Center lane Keaney Blue.

Rhode Island owns it now.

The Rams bullied the UMass men’s basketball team with 46 points in the paint Saturday and left Amherst with an 81-68 Atlantic 10 victory, handing the Minutemen their fourth straight loss.

“We’re giving up way too many points in the paint. It’s been a theme the last three, four games,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “I can’t put all the onus and blame on the front court, we kept getting whipped off the bounce in the back court.”

Makhel Mitchell did most of the Rams damage. He scored 20 points and made 10-of-15 shots. He and his twin brother Makhi Mitchell (seven points, eight assists) combined to draw eight fouls. UMass bigs Trent Buttrick and Greg Jones both fouled out trying to contain them in the post.

“I think it was more about those guys’ motor. The twins have a really high motor. They’re always sprinting full speed,” UMass guard Noah Fernandes said. “A lot of energy gets created for those guys. That was our problem, we couldn’t really contain their energy. Whenever we would go on a run, we could get the stop but we couldn’t finish with the rebound.”

Rhode Island narrowly won the rebounding battle 36-34 but held a 22-15 edge in the first half. The Rams defense held UMass to 29.6 percent shooting in the first half.

UMass (7-9, 0-4 Atlantic 10) built a 17-12 lead over the game’s first 7 minutes, 16 seconds making 7-of-12 shots and 3-of-4 3s. Fernandes scored seven of his team-high 18 points.

Rhode Island (11-4, 2-1) finished the first half on a 31-12 run. The Minutemen missed 13 of their last 14 shots. Only going 9-of-12 from the free throw line kept the Rams in sight. UMass trailed 43-29 at the half.

“I thought we had very little life, energy. It’s almost like we were waiting for something to happen,” McCall said. “You can’t wait for something to happen.”

The Minutemen couldn’t get the lead down to single digits until there was 4:32 remaining. Rich Kelly (14 points) made his second consecutive 3 to bring UMass within 66-57. Then Makhel Mitchell converted a layup 22 seconds later from his brother to push it back to 11.

That was the Minutemen’s second half. They’d do something good that looked like the start of a run then give up a score on the other end to snuff out any chance of building something. Buttrick just missed a potentially gargantuan two-handed tip dunk that would have sent a charge through the team with 14:30 left.

Then T.J. Weeks dove out of bounds to save a possession with 5 minutes left, delivering the ball to Buttrick for a quick pass to Rich Kelly (14 points) for a 3. That cut Rhode Island’s lead to 64-54, but the Minutemen gave up a layup 15 seconds later.

Fernandes shook a Rams defender with a brutal crossover then sank a jumper to make it 74-65. Then he was whistled for a technical foul on his birthday. 

“There were a lot of 50-50 plays we had during that game, and in a game like that, as a team we have to figure out a way to come up with those balls,” Fernandes said. “Sometimes when it gets to be a game like that you focus on yourself a little bit. Instead of making the right play you might go down and take a tough shot.”

UMass had 13 assists and 14 turnovers. Fernandes delivered seven of those assists.

The Minutemen made 13-of-24 3-pointers, a scalding 54.2 percent, but they shot just 35.7 percent. That means they only hit 7-of-32 from inside the arc, just 21.9 percent.

“It’s something that you’ve got to take a step back, look in the mirror and obviously get more physical and better on the defensive end,” Fernandes said. “But we’ve got to make layups around the basket and attack the rim a little more.”

UMass might not like what it’s seeing in the mirror at the moment. The Minutemen’s four-game losing streak is their longest since another four-game slide from Jan. 11-22, 2020. They’ve lost two games in a row at the Mullins Center after a 6-0 start and have statistically the worst defense in the Atlantic 10. Saint Louis is up next for a home and home Thursday and Jan. 23.

To the Minutemen, it’s not the time to fracture.

“Got to dig in. This is an adverse time with a lot of controversy. Things have not gone our way. We’ll see what we’re really made of down the stretch here,” Rich Kelly said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are tough-minded people, have an underdog mentality and believe in each other.”

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

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