UMass basketball programs will welcome fans back to Mullins Center with doubleheader

  • Sophomore guard Noah Fernandes led UMass with 16 points at Chaifetz Arena on Friday. The Minutemen fell 78-57 to Saint Louis on the road. SAINT LOUIS ATHLETICS

  • Sam Breen had 25 points Saturday against Charlotte in the WNIT consolation bracket, which tied the UMass women's basketball record for points in a national postseason game.The Mintutewomen took down Charlotte 81-75 on Saturday at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C. COURTESY JAY CRAIN

Staff Writer
Published: 11/8/2021 6:26:54 PM

No one has seen a basketball game inside the Mullins Center in 612 days.

The UMass men’s basketball team faced Rhode Island on March 7, 2020, losing on a controversial foul called when then-freshman Tre Mitchell blocked Rams guard Fatts Russell with 2.1 seconds remaining.

A lot has changed. Mitchell now plays for Texas, and Russell has since transferred to Maryland. Only three UMass players from that game are still on the Minutemen’s roster. 

It’s been longer for the women’s program. They defeated St. Bonaventure on March 3, 2020, in the Atlantic 10 tournament and also have just three players remaining from that game.

Both programs will welcome fans back to the Mullins Center on Tuesday after a season without them for a hoops doubleheader. The Minutewomen will begin the evening with a 5 p.m. tip off against Central Connecticut State, and the Minutemen will host the University of Maryland, Baltimore County afterward at 7:30 p.m.

“It’s exciting to see real faces and hear real noise instead of cutouts. Last year during the game, it’s quiet. During intense moments, I’d turn around and look and see a cutout of a dog, and I’d just shake my head,” UMass women’s coach Tory Verdi said. “We love playing in front of fans in big arenas. We’re going to soak that up.”

Stakeholders both inside and outside the basketball programs are trying to entice as large a crowd as possible to see the season openers. Five College Movers bought 612 tickets and is giving them away for free. Men’s assistant coach Ricky Harris – the third leading scorer in program history – challenged UMass fans to put 5,000 butts in seats for the game on Twitter. Players from both programs handed out swag and connected with students Monday to try and attract more fans to the Mullins Center.

“We want to get as many people in here as we can. Students have turned out for football this year. They’ve turned out obviously for hockey, rightfully so,” UMass men’s coach Matt McCall said. “We’d love to get students and all of our fans back here. We’ve got an exciting team. It’s gonna be fun to watch.”

The Minutemen (76.7 points per game) and Minutewomen (68.8) both led the A-10 in scoring last season. The men’s team reached the conference quarterfinals for the first time since 2016 last year, and the women’s program played for a conference title for the first time since 1998.

There are six new faces on the men’s roster that joined the program through the transfer portal: Trent Buttrick (Penn State), Greg Jones (Southern Connecticut State), C.J. Kelly (Albany), Rich Kelly (Boston College), Michael Steadman (Montana) and John Kelly (Fairfield). It took the Minutemen time to adjust to their surroundings and each other, but they’ve found more of a groove over the past few weeks.

“It’s hard with a bunch of guys coming from different places. t first, everyone’s just trying to fit in,” junior guard Noah Fernandes said. “After a while you get to know people’s authentic selves. We get to learn a lot about people. These are your brothers.”

This year’s team spent time with the 1995-96 Final Four team that returned to campus in September to be inducted in the UMass Hall of Fame. That group emphasized the importance of connectedness. 

“They’re still in touch,” Fernandes said. “That really hooked on to us, and since that day we’ve really came together because we realized that’s probably the biggest piece in winning this league.” 

The Minutewomen saw that last year when their “Savage Seven” — seven players that stayed on the roster and didn’t transfer out at the end of the regular season — powered through the A-10 tournament to the final and eventually two wins in the WNIT. They added one of the program’s most decorated recruiting classes ever and transfers Shavonne Smith (Towson) and Michelle Pruitt (UTEP).

“I think last year was a good building block of what we’re capable of last year. I think a lot of people underestimated us last year,” UMass graduate student forward Sam Breen said. “I think we’re going to be a lot deeper. We’re only going to get better from here on out.”

Count the Minutemen among those excited to see where this season will take the Minutewomen.

“(The women’s opener against CCSU is) the game, man. They’re gonna be so good this year,” Fernandes said. “I can’t wait to watch them play. If people haven’t seen the UMass women’s basketball team, I suggest you do.”

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