UMass basketball can exhale after beating Rhode Island in OT

  • UMass forward Dibaji Walker defends Rhode Island’s Jalen Carey at the Mullins Center on Wednesday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass forward Tre Mitchell scores against Rhode Island at the Mullins Center on Wednesday. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass senior guard Carl Pierre made a free throw with 6 seconds left that sealed the Minutemen's 80-78 overtime win against Rhode Island on Wednesday at the Mullins Center. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2021 11:18:29 PM

Rhode Island guard Fatts Russell raced up the Mullins Center court with a chance to beat the UMass men’s basketball team on their home floor.

Sound familiar?

Just like the longtime rivals’ previous meeting last March when Russell delivered a win at the free throw line, Wednesday night’s Atlantic 10 showdown ended with cardiac complications. The Minutemen led by two in overtime after senior captain Carl Pierre made 1-of-2 free throws with six seconds left.

Rhode Island was out of timeouts, so the Rams put the ball in their senior’s hands. Russell worked his way into an advantageous position on the right wing and looked like he was pulling up for the game-tying jumper. Then Antwan Walker flashed down the middle of an open lane, the space opened by a UMass double team. Russell delivered a perfect pass, and Walker was at the rim a step later. He missed the layup off the glass as the buzzer sounded, cementing an 80-78 win for UMass.

“I wanted the ball out of Fatts’ hands. What was going through my mind was last year and what happened in a very similar situation,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “Get the ball out of Fatts’ hands and make someone else make a play.”

It was UMass’ first win over Rhode Island since Jan. 2018 and only its second in the previous 10 games. The teams gathered near Rhode Island’s bench after the final whistle, and a few players needed to be separated before UMass went to the locker room to celebrate.

Neither team led by more than two points in overtime. Breaking the tie at the start of overtime took 2:03 when Rhode Island’s Makhel Mitchell sank a layup to pull ahead 74-72. The lead lasted exactly six seconds. Javohn Garcia received a pass across the half court line and whipped the ball to Ronnie DeGray III in the right corner. He rose up for a casual go-ahead 3-pointer, calmly splashing it like it was a warmup and not overtime of a conference grudge match before holding his follow through.

“Reps. I practice it all the time,” DeGray said. “I didn’t think it was a bad shot, I was wide open, it went in. Nothing much.”

DeGray finished with a career-high 21 points and made 7-of-9 shots. He added six rebounds, three assists and two steals.

“He knows the right play to make,” McCall said. “He’s a guy like we haven’t had in my years here in terms of at that position being able to run offense through him. He’s versatile defensively. He’s terrific and I’m really glad he’s only a freshman.”

Russell, one of the conference’s leading free-throw shooters, tied the game at 75 by going 1-of-2 with 1:30 left. Then Tre Mitchell took over. He used an up and under move in a crowd of Rams to sink a layup on the next possession. Then Rhode Island’s D.J. Johnson splashed a 3 to go up by one with 42 seconds left.

The Minutemen went to Mitchell again in the post. Makhel Mitchell (24 points), who guarded Mitchell all night and held him to 16 points – the sophomore was averaging 32 per game against the Rams – fouled out. Tre Mitchell sank both free throws with 25 seconds left for a 79-78 lead.

Rhode Island called timeout with 20 seconds left. Jeremy Sheppard attacked the lane, but Pierre stole the ball with six seconds left and was sent to the free throw line. UMass recorded a season-high 16 steals. Rhode Island (6-7, 3-3) turned the ball over 20 times, which led to 16 UMass points.

“We’re having difficulty passing the ball in general,” Rhode Island coach David Cox said. “It’s a fundamental flaw.”

In regulation, the Minutemen (4-3, 3-1 A-10) allowed a 15-point lead to slip away in the second half. Most of that came with Tre Mitchell on the bench with foul trouble. He picked up his fourth with 7:54 left and sat down with UMass up 62-51. The Rams reeled off a 10-2 run to pull within one possession after Russell made a free throw that cut the lead to 3 with 4:05 remaining.

“We’re playing a little bit of zone there, we’re trying to mix up defenses, we’re playing guys out of position,” McCall said. “We haven’t had a tremendous amount of time to work on that in practice and that’s why we struggled at times.”

Rhode Island’s Allen Betrand tied the game at 72 with a 3 with 15 seconds left. UMass called timeout once it advanced the ball over half court, leaving 8.7 seconds.

Noah Fernandes missed a 3 from straight on, then Tre Mitchell grabbed an offensive rebound but couldn’t convert the putback.

“I thought that (3) was knock down,” McCall said.

UMass initially established its advantage in the middle part of the second half. The Minutemen ripped off a 15-2 run capped by Tre Mitchell’s 3-pointer with 11 minutes, 29 seconds remaining that put them up 57-43.

It was the second overtime game UMass has played this year after the Minutemen lost in double OT against George Mason. The Minutemen previously struggled in tight scenarios at the end of the game., falling at Northeastern and against Bryant at home after failing to capitalize on late possessions.

“We all said we’d been there before. We’d been in situations tougher than that,” Pierre said. “We were pretty upbeat going into overtime.” 

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


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