UMass basketball notebook: Youth shines in first A-10 Tournament exposure

  • UMass freshman guard Javohn Garcia scored 17 points with seven assists and five rebounds in his first collegiate postseason game Thursday against Saint Joseph's in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament. BRIAN MCWALTERS/ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE—

Staff Writer
Published: 3/4/2021 7:41:19 PM

The Atlantic 10 Championship’s bright lights and big stage didn’t faze any of UMass’ first-time participants Thursday.

After last year’s tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, nine rotation players made their postseason debuts in the 100-66 second-round victory over Saint Joseph’s at the Robins Center in Richmond, Va.

Four were freshmen in their first season of college basketball, four were freshmen last year and didn’t play because of a canceled tournament. Junior Dibaji Walker’s Cleveland State team didn’t qualify for the Horizon League tournament his freshman season before he transferred to UMass.

Five of the six Minutemen that scored in double figures Thursday were playing in their first postseason game. Freshmen Ronnie DeGray III and Javohn Garcia started the game and helped power UMass’ first-half onslaught. DeGray scored 13 of his 19 points before halftime, while Garcia added nine points and three assists in the first half. The point guard finished with 17 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.

“We start two freshmen in their first Atlantic 10 tournament and those are their stat lines,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “That was outstanding.”

Part of Garcia’s success was a result of staying out of foul trouble. He played 29 minutes and didn’t commit a foul for only the second time in his career. He had to sit early in UMass’ previous two losses because of first-half fouls, which deprived the Minutemen of a talented driver, passer and shooter. It was the sixth double-digit scoring game of his career.

DeGray scored the second most points in his career (his high is 21 against Rhode Island at home) and grabbed four rebounds.

Sophomore center Tre Mitchell, the reigning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year, posted a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds in his first postseason game. Redshirt freshman TJ Weeks Jr. made four 3s.

“Our plan of attack was just to play basketball. We focused on the defensive end first and the rest just came naturally,” Mitchell said. “Our confidence is through the roof.”

RISE OF DIBAJI WALKER – Walker checked in for the first time since Feb. 6 when he replaced Noah Fernandes with 11 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the first half.

When the Minutemen were forced to pause team activities Feb. 7 amid heightened COVID-19 cases on campus, Walker posted on Instagram that he would not be returning if the season resumed because of a wrist injury he’d been battling most of the year. The junior said he had a torn ligament in his wrist and needed to undergo surgery.

McCall said Walker visited a hand specialist and was told he couldn’t do any more damage to the wrist but it would be a tricky operation that would be difficult to rehab from. After receiving a cortisone shot, Walker practiced Wednesday for the first time in nearly a month. He told UMass assistant Tony Bergeron that he wanted to give it a go.

Walker played seven minutes, grabbing an offensive rebound. He also threw down a two-handed dunk with 1:01 left to push the Minutemen into triple digits on the scoreboard.

“It was great to see. He’s still pushing through his injury. He’s willing to do anything for his team,” DeGray said. “He does whatever it takes to win. I’m happy for him to be on the court and happy to have him with us again.”

Walker missed Monday’s loss against Saint Louis, and his athleticism could make a difference against the Billikens’ talented frontcourt in the quarterfinals Friday.

“When he’s out there his length can cause some problems,” McCall said.

EARNING RESPECT – UMass entered this week’s A-10 tournament with is its highest seed since 2008 (No. 5). The Minutemen played the second-fewest league games and not many against the conference’s top teams, so some criticized their worthiness as a member of the bracket’s upper portion.

“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder. We just want to gain our respect. It’s day in and day out,” DeGray said. “Not a lot of people like UMass, but we’re trying to make ourselves relevant again.”

ARE THOSE CHEERS? – UMass played in front of fans for just the second time all season, and they were wearing maroon shirts with a power U for the first time all year. The A-10 distributed 60 tickets to each team to give away to family and friends.

The families of freshmen like Cairo McCrory and DeGray saw their sons play in college for the first time.

“It was great for the families and great for the players to have their families there,” McCall said.

BEAT UP ON THE BOARDS – UMass outrebounded the Hawks 47-30. The Minutemen grabbed 11 offensive boards and scored 19 second chance points.

“Being more aggressive, that’s how we battled on the boards and crashed defensive glass because we thought they weren’t big enough to get rebounds like that,” DeGray said.

WALK ONS NEARLY WALK OFF – UMass walk ons Brady Antonopoulos and Ryan Marcus entered the game in the final 3 minutes when the Minutemen led by 30. It was Marcus’ first action since Jan. 17 at Fordham, and Antonopoulos last played against La Salle Jan. 9.

Marcus went 0-for-1 with two rebounds in three minutes.

Antonopoulos’ 00 jersey didn’t have his name on the back since he’s a former team manager that McCall brought into the fold. He missed a 3 with 1:16 left standing in front of UMass’ bench that would have eclipsed the 100-point barrier and been his first career points.

“We were trying to get Brady a. 3 at the end of the game. His parents were in the stands,” McCall said. “I thought that one in front of the bench was going in.”

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

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