Seeing Maroon: One step forward, two steps back

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Massachusetts head coach Matt McCall, right, argues a call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Dayton, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Dayton. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) John Minchillo

Published: 2/8/2021 5:37:57 PM

From highest of highs to lowest of lows for the UMass men’s basketball team this past weekend.

On Saturday night, the Minutemen picked up arguably their biggest win of the Matt McCall era, going on the road without two of their best players and beating rival Rhode Island, 75-63.

It’s the first time in seven years UMass has swept the Rams, and it got contributions from multiple role players like Ronnie DeGray III, Mark Gasperini and Cairo McCoy to get the job done with Tre Mitchell and Noah Fernandes out with injuries. Senior Carl Pierre dropped in a team-high 19 points to lead the offensive charge.

“What a win and a gutsy performance,” McCall said after the game. “You have to give our players a tremendous amount of credit. There was a lot of adversity in the game, and they didn’t flinch for a second. They battled and found a way to get a huge win from top to bottom. It was a total team win on the road against a very talented team. I’m proud of our guys.”

The win boosted the Minutemen to 6-2 in Atlantic 10 play this season, their best start since the 2006-07 season. It’s the kind of win that can galvanize a team, a win every player on the roster should feel they played a role in. It would have been one thing to go beat a team like URI with Mitchell scoring 30 points, it’s another to do it with a bunch of unheralded players, and McCall deserves credit for having them prepared to step up when called upon.

The joy of victory didn’t last long, however. On Sunday morning, UMass announced that the campus COVID-19 risk level was raised from “Elevated” to “High,” thus leading to a pause in all athletic activities.

All Minutemen teams can’t compete for a minimum of two weeks — that includes games and practices. During this two-week stretch, UMass was supposed to play against the best the conference had to offer, with games against Dayton, VCU, St. Bonaventure and Duquesne now listed as canceled. It’s a huge blow for a young team that was just beginning to find its rhythm.

Obviously, it’s not just the men’s team that is hurt by this. The women’s team had five games canceled, and after losing its last three games, I’m sure they’re not too thrilled to keep that sour taste in their mouths during these two weeks. When the hockey team next takes the ice, it’ll have been almost a month since their last game.

I don’t really understand why the athletic programs are being punished for an increase in COVID cases on campus. The athletes are following all the protocols put in place for them, haven’t had a slip up yet and are being tested twice a week. As long as there isn’t a spike within the programs, why can’t they play? Did the university really expect to allow students back on campus this semester and not have a spike in cases?

These athletes have made tons of sacrifices to allow this season to happen. They’ve followed all the rules and done what they’ve been told and now they’re being shut down for reasons completely out of their control? It doesn’t exactly seem very logical or fair. Keep the athletes isolated from the rest of campus, continue to test them and allow them to play. To me, shutting them down is far too drastic a step to take.

Lost in all this is the fact that a few UMass teams were set to begin their seasons this week. The men’s soccer season was moved from the fall until the spring, as the Minutemen were set to open Wednesday against Sacred Heart and the women’s soccer team was scheduled to play its first game of the year against UConn on Sunday.

The men’s lacrosse team was also set to start its season Saturday against Army, but that won’t be happening either. I feel for all the winter athletes who have done what they’re told to do throughout this season and now lose all momentum with a shutdown, and I also feel for the fall and spring athletes whose seasons are being cut shorter after already being delayed as is the case with fall sports, or spring sports who had the majority of their season taken away a season ago.

The university really needs to look into why the cases on campus are rising and who’s responsible, because there’s no need to make the athletic programs who have done things the right way an unnecessary casualty.

Thomas Johnston is a Recorder sports reporter and UMass alum. He can be reached at tjohnston@recorder.com


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