Minutemen search for 3rd-straight against Explorers
With postseason implications involved in every game from here on out, the Massachusetts men's basketball team will go for its third-straight win against La Salle on the road Sunday.
UMass (15-11, 7-6 Atlantic 10) is currently in a three-way tie with Dayton and St. Bonaventure in the conference standings. After claiming back-to-back victories against Rhode Island and Saint Joseph's, the Minutemen have pulled themselves over .500 in A-10 play and in position for a postseason run.
Nevertheless, UMass coach Derek Kellogg feels more progress needs to be made if his team is planning on making any noise outside of the regular season.
"I'm not really satisfied with it," Kellogg said after Wednesday's win over the Hawks. "I still think we can do some more things. We have three games left in the regular season, hopefully a tournament game or two or however many we can go with."
In the 69-51 victory on Wednesday at the Mullins Center, the Minutemen played well on the defensive end, limiting the Hawks to 15 points in the first half and 30.8 percent shooting from the field for the game.
Guard Anthony Gurley led the charge, scoring 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting, breaking the 20-point mark for the first time since Jan. 30. The win not only gave UMass back-to-back wins for the first time since January, but it assured a winning season, the first in Kellogg's three-year stint.
That accomplishment, while showing the progress of the Minutemen under Kellogg, is no cause for celebration in the eyes of Gurley.
"It definitely feels good to have more wins than we did last year, but coming into the season, we didn't tip our hat or hold our hat on, we were going to have 15 wins," Gurley said after the game. "We're not satisfied yet."
The Explorers, meanwhile, enter Wednesday's matchup in the bottom third of the A-10 with a 4-9 conference record and a 12-16 overall record.
Following a stretch of three-straight victories against A-10 foes, including a 91-86 win in double overtime against Charlotte, La Salle has dropped five of its last six contests.
In its latest loss, the Explorers were dominated by No. 25 Xavier, which had six players score double figures in a 100-62 victory. La Salle seemed to fare no better than UMass did earlier this season, when the Minutemen dropped their matchup with the Musketeers, 79-50, on Jan. 12.
The last game between UMass and the Explorers resulted in a tightly-contested battle, which the Minutemen won by a slim margin, 74-71, at the MassMutual Center on Jan. 15. UMass received double figures scoring from a quartet of players, including Gurley (20 points), center Sean Carter (15), forward Terrell Vinson (11) and guard Javorn Farrell (13).
After two missed free throws from Farrell with 22 seconds remaining in the contest, the Explorers' Ruben Guillandeaux misfired on a potential game-tying 3-pointer as the Minutemen escaped with the victory.
That win, however, came early in the conference schedule, before UMass went on a four-game losing streak and had its struggles. Kellogg though, feels that his team might be better off now after facing that adversity.
"I don't think the guys want the season to end and that's the most important thing," Kellogg said. "There are teams out there that they're just ready to call it a year and this team, having that little kind of stretch where we didn't play so well, might not have been the worst thing because you fight your way out of it and the guys responded."
The contest will tip-off at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia, Pa.
Defense decisive for Minutemen
For the past two contests, the Massachusetts men's basketball team's defense has played a significant role in pushing the team towards victory.
With La Salle on tap for Saturday, the Minutemen (15-11, 7-6 Atlantic 10) will be looking to continue their defensive pressure and maintain the Explorers' (12-16, 4-9 A-10) triplet of double-digit scorers in center Aaric Murray, forward Jerrell Williams and guard Ruben Guillandeaux.
Last time the two sides met on Jan. 15 at the MassMutual Center, Murray and Williams combined for 32 points off 12-for-27 shooting.
In order to contain Murray and Williams this time, the Minutemen will look to rely on the strengths they possessed in limiting Saint Joseph's guard Langston Galloway on Wednesday night. Galloway, who went 6-for-6 from beyond the arc in UMass' previous meeting with SJU, was held to six points with 1-for-5 shooting from the perimeter.
Galloway wasn't the only member of the Hawks (7-20, 2-11 A-10) struggling on Wednesday night, as the Minutemen continued to pressure the ball and force bad shots. UMass held three players to 1-for-7 shooting and held usual top performer Carl Jones to 1-for-6 shooting.
In a game that guard Gary Correia labeled as "payback," the Minutemen appeared to be back on their feet defensively. In fact, it looked to be the polar opposite of the UMass side that was drowned out by a slew of 3-pointers earlier this month.
During the early part of February, the Minutemen couldn't find a way to control their defense, which led to the side falling into a four-game skid against Saint Louis, SJU, George Washington and Duquesne. The string of losses saw downpours of 3-point shooting from the Billikens (10-17, 4-9 A-10) as well as a general lack to control transition baskets on the defensive end.
Things turned around on Feb. 19, when the Minutemen raised their defensive play to limit the Rams' (17-10, 8-5 A-10) shooting to a dismal 29 percent.
"I thought we picked up our defense in the second half," UMass coach Derek Kellogg said after the URI game.
Impressively, UMass held URI to one 3-point basket throughout the contest, which came in the second half from Nikola Malesevic.
Despite playing well on the defensive end for the majority of the game, the Minutemen almost let the Rams sneak back into the game. This falls in line with something Kellogg has been looking to fix all season: stopping late-game runs by the opponents and closing out games.
"Once again, we're going to have to wait on our late games situations," Kellogg said.
This trend didn't hold off at URI however, as the Minutemen carried over a top defensive performance in the rematch against the Hawks with a dominant first half performance that left SJU without a field goal for the opening 11 minutes, 31 seconds.
Holding SJU to a 30.8 shooting percentage wasn't the only thing UMass had lined up, as the Minutemen controlled the boards with a 44-24 advantage.
Another issue UMass has suffered from in its last few games was giving up a slew of free throw opportunities. In the Minutemen's first contest against SJU, they allowed 15 points from the charity stripe, drawing Kellogg's ire.
"We just have to continue to play better defense for the full 35 without putting teams to the free throw line," Kellogg said to UMass Athletics after the Feb. 5 contest against the Hawks.
Saturday's game at La Salle will be another opportunity for the Minutemen to display a winning defense, whether it's dominating the boards, limiting their opponent's free throws or forcing bad shots.
With three games left in the season, and the A-10 tournament on horizon, defense will be a key piece of the game that UMass will look to work on.