UMass basketball finds another comeback to beat Harvard for 3rd straight win

  • UMass guard Noah Fernandes led the Minutemen with 24 points, nine assists ans seven rebounds against Harvard on Saturday at the Mullins Center in an 87-77 victory. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass’ T.J. Weeks Jr. finished with a season-high 21 points against Harvard on Saturday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass guard Rich Kelly searches for a pass under the basket against Harvard on Saturday at the Mullins Center. The Minutemen won 87-77. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • T.J. Weeks Jr. made 7-of-13 shots from the field and addded a team-high eight rebounds to go along with his 21 points against Harvard on Satruday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass coach Matt McCall earned his 100th career victory Saturday when the Minutemen defeated Harvard 87-77 at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Published: 12/4/2021 3:50:59 PM

AMHERST – Matt McCall screamed “SWITCH” so loud it echoed through a Mullins Center crowd still filing in.

The UMass men’s basketball team tipped against Harvard at noon Saturday, and the Minutemen were off to a sleepy start. Harvard’s Chris Ledlum sank an easy layup to put the Crimson up 16 with 7 minutes, 51 seconds remaining in the first half.

McCall called timeout and yelled as boisterously as he has all season. UMass wasn’t switching every time Ledlum set a pick like the Minutemen were supposed to. They weren’t showing the defensive intensity they emphasized all week in practice.

“It was an animated timeout to say the least,” McCall said. “It was like ‘guys, we’re making the same mistakes.’ Eventually have to stop making the same mistakes. We’re not playing with the same level of aggression we wanted to play with.”

Harvard was shooting 14-of-19 from the field at the time and had made 7-of-11 3-pointers. Idan Tretout, who averages 6.9 points per game for the Crimson, had 10 already.

T.J. Weeks Jr., in his third season with the Minutemen, said it was one of the top three angriest times he’d ever seen McCall.

“You gotta defend, it's too easy for them,” Weeks recalled. “They’re getting wide open 3s, wide open layups, defend. Sit down and defend.”

The Minutemen did. They held Harvard to 36.7 percent shooting over the rest of the game and only 4-of-21 from beyond the arc, outscoring the Crimson by 28 to win 87-77 and complete the three-game homestand with three victories. UMass (6-3) remained undefeated at the Mullins Center despite trailing by double digits in the first half of three of the five games.

“It’s kind of weird because in our preseason scrimmages we started the game really good and our second halves were horrible,” UMass guard Noah Fernandes said. “I think we emphasized a little bit too much on ‘come out in the second half’ and we forgot about keeping our foot on the gas from the jump.”

Harvard (5-4) accelerated to the largest lead of any of them: 17 points just 11:46 in after Luke Sakota splashed a 3 to make it 33-16. The Minutemen turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, which led to 18 points for the Crimson.

“While you’re out there playing, we’re not trying to not rebound the ball or we’re not trying to let the guy drive by us,” Fernandes said. “It’s weird because you’re playing hard and it’s just not going your way. Even if you think you’re doing a lot, you’ve got to do more somehow.”

Fernandes gave UMass everything it needed. Playing on an injured leg that feels much better with the adrenaline of a game pumping through it, he poured in a game-high 24 points to go along with nine assists and seven rebounds. He hit 6-0f-9 3s.

“He’s not just a scoring guard, he makes plays. He has a want to get his teammates involved,” McCall said. “That speaks to his character, that speaks through his want to win.”

He kept the Minutemen afloat in the game’s early stages, scoring 11 of UMass’ first 16 points. After McCall’s heated timeout, UMass ripped off a 19-3 run to tie the game at 38 with 3:11 to halftime on a Weeks free throw. He scored nine of his season-high 21 points during the stretch. Weeks added a team-high eight rebounds and made 4-of-8 3s after struggling from beyond the arc to open the season.

“Ever since we challenged him in Florida and changed the lineup, he never once flinched. He’s embraced it,” McCall said. “To see him find his stroke, it’s awesome. I’m really proud of him.”

Fernandes put UMass ahead for the first time 41-40 with a 3 with 2:18 to halftime, and the Minutemen took a 43-42 advantage into the break. The Minutemen made 15 3s, one shy of the program record of 16 last reached in 2015. They shot 51.7 percent from beyond the arc, and five players hit a triple.

“I think we have a lot of playmakers, and when they get to the rim, the whole defense collapses and that results in a lot of kick outs and open shots,” Fernandes said. “Most teams sink in, we find open guys.”

The Minutemen distributed 20 assists, 11 in the second half as they stretched their lead from one to 10.

C.J. Kelly (eight rebounds) scored all 16 of his points after halftime. He pump faked Ledlum so hard it sent him flying out of bounds on the closeout, then Kelly took a beat before wetting a dagger 3 to put UMass up 84-75 with 1:11 left.

He was one of four Minutemen in double figures. Rich Kelly also had 10 and a disrespectful stepback that turned Harvard’s Noah Kirkwood completely around and pushed UMass’ lead to 71-65 with 8:06 remaining.

“We’ve got so many people and we play so unselfish there’s no form of scout for us," Fernandes said. “That works to our advantage tremendously.”

The victory gave McCall 100 in his career, which includes two years at Chattanooga on top of his five seasons in Amherst. The Minutemen soaked him with water bottles in the locker room following the win.

“He’s awesome, an awesome guy, an awesome coach,” Fernandes said. “I love him, personally he’s probably my favorite coach I’ve ever had in my entire life. I appreciate him, for giving us this opportunity to even put on this uniform.”

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