UMass grinds out win over La Salle to secure first-round bye

  • UMass freshman Tre Mitchell, center, is pressured by Dayton's Obi Toppin, left, and Trey Landers, right, in the first half, Feb. 15 in Amherst. On Wednesday, UMass beat La Salle, 75-64, to secure a bye in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Mitchell had 24 points and nine rebounds for the Minutemen. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 3/4/2020 10:22:03 PM

PHILADELPHIA — For the first time in four years, UMass will get to relax on the first day of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

The Minutemen defeated La Salle, 75-64, on Wednesday night to secure themselves a bye into the second round of the conference tournament for the first time since 2016. They will either be the No. 8 or No. 9 seed and play Thursday at noon at the Barclays Center in New York against either Davidson or VCU.

“The biggest thing it shows is progress for our program,” coach Matt McCall said. “It’s something we haven’t had in the last couple of years and you see now that we’re headed now in the right direction.”

The progress UMass (14-16, 8-9 Atlantic 10) has made this season was on display throughout the 40 minutes. Everytime UMass seemed to make a run at pulling away in the game, La Salle had a response to cut the deficit back to a single possession. Yet the Explorers (14-15, 5-12) never reclaimed the lead in the second half, as the Minutemen had their own spurts to pad the advantage once more.

UMass never allowed La Salle to score more than five consecutive points, even when the game was potentially going to slip away. The Explorers cut the deficit to five at the final media timeout, but Tre Mitchell canned a contested 3-pointer between four free throws from Sean East II to close out the game.

“It’s a fight,” East said. “Our mentality is relentless, just don’t quit, just keep going. We knew they were going to throw a punch, so just take it and keep going.”

East was once again in full control of the offense in his return to the starting lineup. The freshman scored 18 points and dished out eight assists, always finding ways to score when the Minutemen needed it the most. He also had three steals as the Minutemen forced the issue on defense and were able to secure some easy baskets on the fast break.

The eight helpers were the most for East since he had seven against Saint Louis on Feb. 18.

“It was so good to see him go out there and play that game really, really well,” McCall said. “We’ve been hard on him as a staff, we’ve challenged him, we’ve coached him, we’ve pushed him and to see him respond the way he did, I was really proud of him.”

Where East was most effective was providing a secondary scoring option inside to Mitchell. The freshman big man still led the way with 24 points and nine rebounds for the Minutemen, but he did much of his damage outside the paint.

UMass scored just 26 points in the lane, a side effect of La Salle’s constant double-teams, but East was never afraid to attack the basket and finish through contact to help open up the floor for his teammates.

“I was just trying to get things going,” East said. “We shot a lot of 3s, so people were telling me to shoot it, but we had been shooting it a lot, so I was just trying to get some paint touches.”

What East provided to the offense, Preston Santos was doing at the other end of the floor for the Minutemen. Santos battled foul trouble for most of the second half, but when he was in the game, he was a defensive dynamo, especially in crunch time.

He sealed the game with one of his electric closeouts, running at Isiah Deas and getting a hand on a 3-point try with a minute left. He then skied above the court to snag two rebounds in the closing minute and wisely was able to get rid of the ball to bleed more time off the clock. He finished the night with three blocks and three rebounds to go along with 13 points in just 22 minutes of action.

“At the point where I picked up my fourth foul, I was in my head a little bit,” Santos said. “Carl (Pierre) just told me ‘you’re playing good, don’t worry about it’ and once I got back in he told me to just hoop, and that’s what I did. I wasn’t really worried about the rhythm I was in, I was just worried about helping the team come out with a win.”

With Kolton Mitchell dealing with a twisted ankle, Keon Clergeot contributed more valuable minutes for the Minutemen off the bench. He scored seven of his points and grabbed all five of his rebounds in the first half, helping to lift UMass out of an early rut with his energy.

The Minutemen had five turnovers in the first three minutes of the game before Clergeot was inserted into the lineup as a secondary ballhandler. He drew a foul on his first 3-pointer for his second four-point play of the season, which gave UMass the lead for good. He then added a 3-pointer that danced around the rim for a few seconds before dropping.

“He was terrific,” McCall said. “The and-one he had, his defending, he had two offensive rebounds in the first half, he was coming up with loose balls. He had his energy out there, he got it into the game and he was huge for us.”


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