Noah Fernandes drills buzzer-beater to cap UMass basketball’s comeback win over Rutgers

  • UMass guard Noah Fernandes pulls up for the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to take down Rutgers at the Mullins Center on Saturday. DANIEL FRITZ/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • T.J. Weeks Jr. and the UMass men’s basketball team mobbed guard Noah Fernandes after he hit a buzzer beater to take down Rutgers on Saturday at the Mullins Center. DANIEL FRITZ / UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2021 6:02:57 PM

AMHERST – Noah Fernandes popped up from the Mullins Center floor.

He fell trying to take a charge against Rutgers’ Paul Mulcahy with five seconds remaining Saturday, and Mulcahy laid the ball in for a go-ahead basket.

For a moment, Fernandes felt like he let the team down. Then Dibaji Walker inbounded him the ball. Fernandes looked up at the clock and saw 4.6 seconds. Plenty of time. The junior guard from Mattapoisett took the game in his hands and dribbled across half court. Fernandes crossed Mawot Mag over from his right to his left and fired from four feet beyond the 3-point line, jumping from Rockport on the court’s Massachusetts outline. The buzzer sounded right before the ball dropped through, delivering UMass an 85-83 win and igniting a Minuteman mosh pit around Fernandes.

“Honestly I was thinking about the team. We overcame a lot to come back in that game and give ourselves a chance,” Fernandes said. “I had the ball in my hands, and it was up to me what I was going to do with it. I really wanted to make that shot for the guys.”

It capped a 17-point comeback in the second half and gave UMass its second win over a Big Ten team this season after the Minutemen took down Penn State two weeks ago. UMass (5-3) has now won two games in a row for the first time this season after alternating wins and losses for the first seven contests.

“We’ve been up and down, up and down,” Fernandes said. “We know we have a talented team. We just want to put the pieces together. We’ve got two, so now we’ve got to get three, four, five.”

For most of the game, UMass appeared headed for another loss. The Scarlet Knights built an 11-point lead in the game’s first 5:26. They led 46-34 at halftime then started the second frame with a 5-0 run 1:36 in.

Rutgers (3-3) bullied the Minutemen inside. They outscored UMass 50-12 in the paint and outrebounded them 36-24. 

“We can’t go in there and try to shoot over them. They’re too big,” UMass coach Matt McCall said.

McCall started just one big man, forward Trent Buttrick, and Rutgers made three of its first four shots. All of the makes were dunks by Clifford Omoruyi. He scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half.

UMass eventually played combinations of Buttrick, Greg Jones, Michael Steadman and Dibaji Walker together to provide more size and interior defense.

“We thought about (starting bigger), we thought about starting the same five guys we did against Lowell,” McCall said. “As a coach you always get a little concern when you try to change things up.”

But UMass needed a change. The Minutemen switched to a zone late in the first half, and that provided the stability they needed to begin the long road back.

“We were struggling guarding the man. They kept running a box set and posting up our smaller guards. You’ve got to be willing to adjust,” McCall said. “Give our coaching staff so much credit. There was such positive communication amongst those guys. If we’re on the same page, they’ll be on the same page.”

The Minutemen’s offense, particularly its 3-point shooting, kept them within striking distance while they figured the defensive end out. UMass hit 16-of-32 3s. The Minutemen splashed 8-of-13 in the second half led by 3 from C.J. Kelly. He poured in a career-high 24 points and hit 5-of-7 from beyond the arc.

“My coaching staff does a good job of us getting up a lot of reps every day. After practice it’s me getting a lot of shots up with the guys,” Kelly said. “When it gets going like that it’s just repetition.”

Kelly led four Minutemen in double figures. Fernandes added 16 points and 11 assists in his first career double-double. He was more concerned about his two turnovers after the game.

Rich Kelly put in 12 points with four 3s, and T.J. Weeks Jr. scored 11.

“That’s the firepower on the team,” McCall said.

UMass trailed by double digits for most of the game, occasionally trimming the deficit to nine, but the Minutemen lacked that final push to make the Scarlet Knights sweat. Then CJ Kelly made two free throws with 6:47 left that cut it to 74-67.

The Minutemen outscored Rutgers 18-9 after that point. They made 10-of-10 from the free throw line down the stretch and sank 21-of-27 in the game.

Fernandes brought UMass within two possessions for the first time since the opening minutes when he sank two free throws with 3:53 left that cut it to 77-73. Buttrick then splashed a 3 that cut Rutgers’ advantage to one with 1:15 left.

Mag answered with a jumper to push it back to three, but Fernandes kept the Scarlet Knights close with another couple free throws. He was 8-of-9 from the line.

Trailing 81-80 with 27 seconds left, Rich Kelly fouled Caleb McConnell. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Jones (eight points, team-high seven rebounds) secured the rebound for UMass. Fernandes attacked the lane and drew two more free throws, which he made to give the Minutemen an 82-81 lead, their first of the contest.

“What else can we say about him? He was absolutely outstanding,” McCall said. “I’ll say it again: he’s one of the best guards in the A-10. Bar none.”

The Scarlet Knights briefly took an 83-82 lead on Mulcahy’s layup, but that left enough time for Fernandes to etch his name into Massachusetts basketball history.

“When he let it go, I was like ‘it’s in.’ It was the first game my entire family was at, including my son Maverick, that was his first basketball game," McCall said. “Haven’t seen my girls at a game since before the pandemic. I just turned to them and gave them a fist bump, said thank you for coming because they have to sacrifice a lot. It was a special moment.”

It was a shot Fernandes decided to take during a game he might not have even played in. Fernandes hurt his leg during UMass’ holiday tournament in St. Petersburg, Fla., and missed the Minutemen's win over Lowell.

“Honestly it hurts pretty bad. I probably shouldn’t have played. It was a big game. I didn't want to feel like I let the guys down or anything," Fernandes said. “I just tried to give them my all. I've got plenty of time to recover.”

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