UMass basketball: Minutemen grind down La Salle in second half, pull away for 81-65 victory

UMass’ Daniel Hankins Sanford (1) goes up for a dunk against La Salle during Atlantic 10 Conference action Wednesday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass’ Daniel Hankins Sanford (1) goes up for a dunk against La Salle during Atlantic 10 Conference action Wednesday night at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass’ Keon Thompson (5) drives to the basket while defended by La Salle’s Tunde Vahlberg Fasasi (34) during Atlantic 10 Conference action at the Mullins Center in Amherst on Wednesday.

UMass’ Keon Thompson (5) drives to the basket while defended by La Salle’s Tunde Vahlberg Fasasi (34) during Atlantic 10 Conference action at the Mullins Center in Amherst on Wednesday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 01-10-2024 10:30 PM

AMHERST — It may not have been the prettiest display of basketball the UMass men’s team has shown this season, but the Minutemen held La Salle to just two points over a seven-minute stretch in the second half to pull away.

UMass used 24 points and 10 rebounds from Josh Cohen and 10 points and 13 rebounds from Daniel Hankins-Sanford (his first career double-double) to pull away from the Explorers, 81-65, for its second conference win on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.

Following a few disappointing performances, Cohen sat down with head coach Frank Martin to discuss his lack of energy on a nightly basis.

His response was evident on Wednesday.

“Me and Coach Frank had a good talk last week,” Cohen said. “My team carried me through two games where I was nonexistent. Realistically, just going into [this] game, just trying to play as hard as I can... That’s been my downfall at some points. Some times I don’t play as hard as I should and I let the team down. But from here on out I’m gonna focus [on that].”

That physical, grind-it-out play style favors the Minutemen, and the reason so many of their games are low-scoring – and are likely to continue to be that way as Atlantic 10 Conference play progresses – is because they prefer to play that way. And a lot of that has to do with UMass’ effort on defense.

The stingy Frank Martin unit that just held Dayton to 64 points on Sunday put together another stifling outing against La Salle. The Minutemen forced 12 turnovers, out-rebounded the Explorers by 12 (44-31), and limited them to 43 percent shooting from the field.

“[La Salle] is a hard guard,” Martin said. “They space you and they got some guards that are coming at you off the bounce, and they’re good with the ball, and they iso[late] you, and they’re strong… We had some bad breakdowns behind the ball, and that’s where the lack of enthusiasm comes from. We had guys standing around rather than in a stance ready to go. I thought we were better there in the second half.”

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A Jhamir Brickus layup put the Explorers ahead 37-35 with 18:35 left in the second half – their last points for the next seven minutes. UMass went on a 12-2 run until the 11:25 mark, and extended the lead to 11 with another 7-0 stint minutes later.

Seventeen of Cohen’s 24 came over the final 20 minutes, and he was the catalyst of the Minutemen’s offense in the second half – where it scored 49 points.

“I thought he played a lot better against Dayton, but it was hard to get him the ball because Dayton played that zone and had the two big boys in there,” Martin said. “Josh needs to be mentally and physically connected to practices and the games so he can have success. More importantly, he might be the oldest guy on the team, so all the young guys can follow his lead  from that standpoint.”

Rahsool Diggins (f  ive rebounds, four assists) bounced back from his 0-for-10 3-point shooting slump with 15 points, including three 3s, on 6-for-8 shooting while playing a team-high 35 minutes. Freshman Jaylen Curry provided a spark off the bench when the Minutemen offense looked stagnant, putting up 12 points and four assists.

As he’s done for the past several contests, Hankins-Sanford made countless hustle plays en route to his double-double. He pulled down five offensive rebounds, came up with two steals and changed shots at the rim – serving as the glue guy doing a little bit of everything.

“He could’ve had a 23-point game today, there were just some little bunnies, that he’s good at, that he missed today,” Martin said. “He played with a physicality, he played with an aggression, he went after the ball… He’s done that for two weeks, and guess what? He’s played pretty well. Hopefully he can stay in whatever mindset he’s in right now.”

Everything looked good for UMass as the second half clock ticked down, until Matt Cross went down with an injury to his left ankle with 6:08 remaining in the game. The senior hustled for an offensive rebound, and took a spill on the baseline. He was down for several minutes as the training staff looked at him. He was then helped to the locker room and didn’t return the rest of the way.

Cross finished with six points, four rebounds and one assist after missing the last two days of practice with pink eye.

“He hadn’t practiced the last two days, and Matt’s a guy, because he plays with such effort and determination, he needs his practice reps,” Martin said. “He didn’t play great today. He got frustrated with that… it’s an ankle [injury]. I haven’t seen the play. My trainer told me it’s an ankle. The details, the extent? I got no idea.”

Tunde Vahlberg Fasai scored a team-high 14 points for La Salle, which dropped to 10-6 with the loss. Brickus added 12 points and six assists while Khalil Brantley, the team’s leading scorer, was held to just seven points.

UMass (11-4, 2-1 A-10) improved to 4-0 after losses, winning each game by at least 14 points. The Minutemen travel to the Ryan Center to take on Rhode Island Saturday in the first of two matchups between the old rivals. Tip-off is slated for 2 p.m.