Javohn Garcia fills void to lead UMass basketball past UMass Lowell

  • UMass forward Dibaji Walker throws down a dunk against UMass Lowell on Wednesday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass forward Dibaji Walker throws up a layup against UMass Lowell on Wednesday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass guard Javohn Garcia flexes after finishing a layup through contact against UMass Lowell on Wednesday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass guard Rich Kelly drives toward the basket against UMass Lowell on Wednesday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass guard Javohn Garcia, right, chest bumps Rich Kelly after a basket against UMass Lowell on Wednesday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Published: 11/24/2021 10:47:14 PM
Modified: 11/24/2021 10:46:58 PM

AMHERST – Javohn Garcia regularly flashed a wide smile Wednesday at the Mullins Center.

The UMass sophomore guard doesn’t smile a lot, and he hasn’t had many reasons to on the court this season. He’s only played 49 minutes total, appearing in four of the UMass men’s basketball team’s first six games.

With starting point guard Noah Fernandes out for Wednesday’s game against UMass Lowell, that opened minutes in the rotation. Garcia seized them with gusto, scoring 18 points off the bench to set a season high, as UMass won 92-81 to remain unbeaten at the Mullins Center.

“We’ve been on Javohn as a staff, we’ve been on him about his effort,” UMass coach Matt McCall said.

He took two charges Tuesday in practice. The staff joked that he hadn’t taken two charges in his whole career. 

“He did it yesterday, and he’s kept his chin up. He was ready for the opportunity that he got,” McCall said. “I was proud of him and happy for him. He was smiling in there, too. Javohn’s not a guy that smiles all the time.”

That included five rebounds, four assists and a 9-of-11 performance from the free throw line. He hadn’t scored that many points since the first two games of his career against Northeastern, when he hung 23 and 18 on the Huskies.

“Every day we talk about next man up, and today was an example of that,” Garcia said. “Noah was out, and we needed somebody to step up and play the role for us to succeed and win.”

He led six Minutemen in double figures. C.J. Kelly put away 12 points on three 3s against his former Albany coach Pat Duquette, who now coaches the River Hawks. T.J. Weeks also had 12 to go along with six rebounds. He was limited in the second half due to two bouts of cramping.

Trent Buttrick and Rich Kelly (five assists) added 11 points each, while Michael Steadman scored 10 points in his UMass debut. The Montana transfer only played 12 minutes but made the most of them. Eight of those points came in the second half over a two-minute stretch in the second half when he had eight points in a row for UMass and helped the Minutemen ward off a late UMass Lowell push.

“Maybe the first two minutes, I was kind of rushing, the game was kind of fast,” Steadman said. “It slowed down in the second half.”

UMass (4-3) sped up late in the first half. The teams kept tight for the game’s first 16 minutes, exchanging the lead 16 times with five ties.

The River Hawks, which took down two Atlantic 10 teams on the road earlier this season in Dayton and George Washington, grabbed their last lead 24-23 on an Allin Blunt layup with 3 minutes, 53 seconds to halftime. 

Garcia ensured it didn’t last long, converting a layup through traffic that gave UMass the lead back for good 25-24 just 10 seconds later and adding a free throw for good measure. That sparked a 27-3 run for the Minutemen that extended into the second half.

“We started to push the ball and started to really guard,” Steadman said. “When we were locked in, we let our defense set the tone.”

UMass held the River Hawks to 35.5 percent shooting in the first half and and outrebounded them 21-13. The Minutemen won the rebounding battle for the first time all season, 43-26.

Their lead grew to as large as 24 when Dibaji Walker, who added nine points despite being limited to 11 minutes with foul trouble, converted an and-one layup that made it 56-32 with 14:23 left.

UMass-Lowell responded with a 12-0 run over the next 1:11 that put the game immediately back in doubt. The River Hawks put up 54 points in the second half compared to just 27 in the first.

“We completely let off the gas and stopped doing what got us that lead, stopped being aggressive and gave up way too many 3s,” McCall said.

UMass-Lowell hit nine of its 10 3s in the second half and shot 50 percent from behind the arc after halftime.

Gregory Hammond cut the lead to eight with 1:05 left thanks to a layup, but UMass-Lowell couldn’t push any closer.

“We kept our composure and didn’t feel panicked,” Steadman said. “We didn’t let them speed us up toward the end of the game. We just fell in love with the process, and we kept doing what we’re supposed to.”

The Minutemen made 7-of-10 free throws down the stretch, part of a 25-of-33 effort on the night. 

“They’re tough and they’re physical,” McCall said. “I thought we did a good job of being strong with the basketball.”

UMass also turned the ball over 16 times, a season high, but compare that to 20 assists, also the most this season. The Minutemen’s previous high was 16 dimes in a loss against Weber State.

They’ll have two days before their next game, at 2 p.m. Saturday tip against Rutgers. That game will end UMass’ compact stretch of eight games in 18 days since the Minutemen won’t take the floor again after Rutgers until Dec. 4. McCall said he’s giving the team a 24-hour break after Thursday’s practice before they reconvene to prepare for the Scarlet Knights. He added he was “optimistic” about Fernandes, the team’s leading scorer, being able to play.

“I want them to take that 24 hours to be able to catch their breath because this has been a challenging stretch,” McCall said. 

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