UMass falls 64-63 in heartbreaker to Rhode Island

  • Tre Mitchell, right, of UMass, drives against Jermaine Harris, of Rhode Island, in the first half, Saturday at the Mullins Center. COURTESY J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

  • UMass freshman center Tre Mitchell, top, shoots over Antwan Walker, of Rhode Island, in the first half, Saturday at the Mullins Center. COURTESY J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2020 6:27:58 PM

AMHERST — Tre Mitchell almost saved UMass from itself Saturday night.

Twice it looked like the Minutemen were down for the count against Rhode Island at the Mullins Center, and twice the freshman big man resurrected them. A 17-point first-half deficit was sliced to seven because Mitchell scored the final 11 points of the half for UMass. He was a major reason UMass completely erased a 14-point second-half deficit as he stared down the Rams and continued to make big plays.

He hit the 3-pointer with 1 minute, 11 seconds remaining to give UMass its first lead since the opening minutes. He made the layup after Rhode Island went down the floor and took the lead right back, then he hit two pressure-filled free throws with 8.1 seconds left to stake the Minutemen to yet another lead. But with 2.1 seconds left, he was whistled for a controversial foul after what looked to be a clean block on Fatts Russell’s layup attempt. Russell made his two free throws to help the Rams escape Amherst with a 64-63 victory.

“What he’s doing night in and night out is phenomenal,” coach Matt McCall said. “It’s not like he’s not on the scouting report, he’s not sneaking up on anybody, he was outstanding.”

Mitchell was the only player really going for UMass from start to finish as he scored a season-best 34 points – evenly split between the two halves. It wasn’t just that Mitchell was scoring, but how he was doing it against Rhode Island. He had torched the Rams in the paint when the two teams met last month in Rhode Island, and on Saturday, he made it rain from behind the arc.

The freshman made 6 of 8 3-point attempts, one short of the seven assistant coach Tony Bergeron dreamt he would make Friday night. He was just 4 of 8 inside the arc, but had four assists with his vision to find open shooters and cutters as he continued to draw attention.

“He’s got everything,” freshman point guard Sean East II said. “He can shoot it, he can step out and shoot it, he’s got a little mid-range and you know how he is in the post. And he can pass.”

UMass (14-17, 8-10 Atlantic 10) struggled to find an early offensive flow because Rhode Island seemed to make it a point to take Mitchell out of the paint. The Rams (21-9, 13-5) did an excellent job at denying Mitchell touches inside the lane and converting him into a perimeter player. As the Minutemen tried to adjust to the physicality Rhode Island was bringing to the court, the game almost slipped away for the first time.

Mitchell sank a 3-pointer a little more than two minutes into the game to give UMass a 6-4 lead. The Minutemen then didn’t score for more than eight minutes and the Rams went on a 19-0 run in the process. It took another two minutes for the Minutemen to score another basket – a Mitchell layup that kicked off a 17-4 run to bring UMass back into the game.

“Our effort level was bad to start,” McCall said. “I don’t know if it was senior day or whatever it was, but our effort level wasn’t there. We knew who we were playing (Saturday), we knew where we were playing and we knew what time we were playing, (Saturday) was really about pride.”

UMass once again tried to get Mitchell going on the interior to begin the second half, but midway through it became obvious the freshman was needed elsewhere. Rhode Island quickly doubled its halftime lead to 14 with 12:55 remaining, and then Mitchell took over as a non-traditional guard. The Minutemen started running more actions for Mitchell on the perimeter and the Rams struggled to contain him.

Mitchell continued to can clutch shot after clutch shot from behind the arc, ramping up his celebrations each time the shots fell.

“It was a physical game and we needed to move him on the perimeter and get him away from the basket,” McCall said. “They were just being physical inside, so we needed to move him away to the perimeter, and when he’s shooting the ball like that, that’s the way to play him.”

Mitchell also received some help from East, who scored 12 points and dished out seven assists compared to just one turnover. The freshman was composed on the court while breaking through the Rhode Island pressure, always making the right pass to advance the ball down the court. It continued a strong recent stretch for East, who had a rough start to A10 play before bouncing back to average 6.2 assists per game over the last six games.

“I’m getting back in the groove,” East said. “I had a little slow little month or whatever, but I’m trying to get it back, limit turnovers, more assists and be more vocal of a leader. We need a leader on the floor, so I’m trying to get into that role and talk more and just better everything.”

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