UMass vs. Rhode Island still resonates for Minutemen

  • Cairo McCrory and the UMass men's basketball team will host Rhode Island at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Javohn and the UMass men's basketball team will host Rhode Island at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/12/2021 8:13:07 PM

Rhode Island’s last visit to the Mullins Center still stings for the UMass men’s basketball team.

Tre Mitchell, riding a then-career high scoring night, blocked Fats Russell’s game-winning layup with 2.2 seconds left. Or so he thought. Mitchell was whistled for the foul, and sank two free throws to deliver a Rams victory in the regular season finale March 7.

“We really were bad in the first 12 minutes and then the next essentially 28 we were terrific. They’re a new team, a different team,” UMass coach Matt McCall said of the Rams.

But so are the Minutemen. Only three Rhode Island players remain from that team: Russell, Jermaine Harris and Antwan Walker. There are four UMass players left who experienced that game: Tre Mitchell, Carl Pierre, Dibaji Walker and Kolton Mitchell. Preston Santos also played, but he is away from the team for a leave of absence.

The faces may be different, but it’s still UMass vs. Rhode Island.

The game was originally scheduled for Feb. 27 but was moved up due to COVID-19 related rescheduling in the Atlantic 10. It’s an early tip, set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Mullins Center.

“We’ve got a lot of kids that are from this area, and they understand this has been a rivalry for a long, long time,” McCall said. “They understand what the game means and what it means to our fans, even though there won’t be any fans in the building.”

UMass (3-3, 2-1 A-10) hasn’t played in front of fans all season and have learned to bring their own energy. Bench players like Cairo McCrory and Dyondre Dominguez use their voices from the bench and influence the tempo of the play when they’re in the game.

“Just because it’s a rivalry, people are going to be riled up to play; both teams,” UMass sophomore Noah Fernandes said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that provide energy for our team, and they know that they do that. Those guys are going to bring all their energy, and we gon’ be straight.”

The Minutemen will have to rely on their energy because they don’t have the same game exposure as Rhode Island (6-6, 3-2) this season. UMass has only played six games largely because of its COVID pause at the start of the season, half the number of tilts the Rams have played.

Rhode Island was at Mohegan Sun for the Bubbleville event UMass needed to back out of in November, and the Rams took full advantage. They faced a ranked Arizona State team and Boston College in the 2K Empire Classic – two single-digit losses – and added games against South Florida and San Francisco in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip Off. The Rams also played at No. 13 Wisconsin early in December. They’ve won three of their past four games, including beating VCU on Saturday.

“They’ve played some unbelievable competition. They went down to the bubble, and it was like ‘Hey we’ll play anybody.’ That’s what they did,” McCall said. “That experience really helped their basketball team especially when they have a new team. They got a tremendous amount of experience and played some big time opponents, which got them playing the way they are now.”

Russell, a senior point guard, has been the engine for the Rams on offense and defense. He’s 12th in the A-10 in scoring at 15.4 points per game and third in the league in steals (2.3 per game). Russell averages 3.8 assists per contest and is one of the conference’s best free-throw shooters (85.7 percent), which UMass witnessed firsthand last March.

“He’s one of the best point guards in the league, one of the best point guards in the country. You’ve got to do a lot of preparation for him,” Fernandes said. “Defensively, you know he’s assigned to pick up full court all game. Offensively you’ve got to make him take tough shots even though he’s very good at that, too. With guys like that, you’ve got to hope to contain him.”

UMass will try to keep him and fellow senior John Shepard (10.6 points per game) out of the lane and off the free throw line. But they aren’t the only threats. Rhode Island’s entire roster averages more than five points per game, and there are 11 players averaging at least 15 minutes per game.

“This is the first  team we’ve played that’s going to play 10 guys. Our depth is going to be a good counterpart to that,” Fernandes said.

Rhode Island uses that depth to play aggressive defense. The Rams blitz pick and rolls to try and force mistakes from the ball handler.

“How aggressive they are in pick and roll coverages, we haven’t seen a lot of that. Not being completely panic stricken when they jump out and hard hedge on a pick and roll, seeing how the floor looks, where’s my outlet on those hard half blitzes?” McCall said.

UMass is coming off a win in its last game against La Salle. The Minutemen haven’t won two straight games yet this season. They’ve also lost the previous three against Rhode Island and eight of the previous nine against the Rams.

“We’ve got to stay level headed and keep focus on getting better,” McCall said. “It’s a big game for a lot of reasons, but every single conference game is a big game.”

WEEKS INJURY UPDATE – Redshirt freshman guard TJ Weeks will be a game-time decision after leaving UMass’ win over La Salle with a knee injury Saturday. He hasn’t done any full court work yet, McCall said Tuesday, but Weeks did agility exercises, 5-on-0 drills and shooting exercises.

“We’re optimistic,” McCall said.

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

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