UMass basketball: Minutemen dig double-digit hole, drop road game at last-place La Salle, 82-81 

UMass forward Josh Cohen (23) drives to the hoop before being fouled by South Florida’s Gerald Jones (21) earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass forward Josh Cohen (23) drives to the hoop before being fouled by South Florida’s Gerald Jones (21) earlier this season at the Mullins Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Reports

Published: 02-17-2024 4:54 PM

Just three days removed from its biggest win of the season, the UMass men’s basketball team followed it up with perhaps its worst loss of the year on Saturday.

The Minutemen dug themselves a double-digit halftime hole on the road against last place La Salle, and couldn’t climb all the way out. The Explorers held off a furious UMass comeback bid in the waning minutes to secure an 82-81 Atlantic 10 Conference victory at Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia.

UMass dropped to 16-9 overall, 7-6 in the league.

“First time all year where we’re tired,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said. “We tried to manage the last two days a certain way. We had back to back road trips, and obviously Richmond on the road (Wednesday) and then (VCU next) on Tuesday… that’s five games in 13 days. So I had to manage the last couple days a certain way and unfortunately in the first half, we didn’t have it.

“These kids tried, we tried to win the game,” he continued. “The first half was just bad. We were lethargic and slow.”

Fresh off Wednesday’s win at Richmond (the first Quad 1 win of the season for the Minutemen), UMass struggled to stop La Salle in the game’s first 20 minutes on Saturday. The Explorers exploded for 51 points in the first half, the most points allowed by the Minutemen in a first half all season, to take a 51-41 advantage into the half.

Keon Thompson picked up his second foul just 4:06 into the game, and the sophomore wound up sitting for the rest of the first half due to the foul trouble. He ultimately played just 18 minutes and scored four points before fouling out in the final minute of the game.

“That killed us,” said Martin of Thompson’s first-half foul trouble, though the head coach admitted in the postgame that if he had to do it over again he would’ve inserted Thompson back into the game sooner. “Keon’s our sparkplug, he’s the guy that gets the engine running. Not having him out there put us in a tough spot.”

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La Salle (12-14, 3-10), which entered the contest losers of five games in a row and nine of its last 10, extended its lead to as many as 18 points via a 16-5 run that made it 71-53 with 10 minutes remaining.

The Minutemen didn’t go away however, chipping away at the deficit. Josh Cohen (21 points, 13 rebounds) sank a turnaround shot with 5:45 remaining to make it a single-digit deficit (72-63), and Cohen later made a pair of free throws to make it a 74-67 game with 4:39 to play.

Matt Cross’ three-point play with 2:30 remaining kept the Minutemen within 78-72, and Rahsool Diggins splashed a 3-pointer with 1:27 remaining to make it 78-75.

UMass got the ball back again with a chance to tie the game in the final minute, but Diggins, who shot just 4-for-16 from the floor and 2-for-8 from 3, missed a 3-pointer with 26.1 seconds remaining.

La Salle’s Khalil Brantley missed the front-end of a one-and-one however, giving UMass new life and another shot to tie the game. The ball found a wide-open Cross on the ensuing possession, but his 3 rimmed out with 12 seconds left. 

Jhamir Brickus hit both free throws for La Salle, and despite two late 3s from Robert Davis Jr. and Jaylen Curry, the Explorers did the job at the charity stripe to seal the deal. Curry’s 3 just before the final buzzer accounted for the 82-81 final, and La Salle was able to inbound the ball and tick off the final 0.1 seconds.

“Matt and Rahsool both missed 3s to tie the game,” Martin said. “Desire, want and commitment, those are not an issue with this team. Sometimes the ball goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.”

In one of the more surprising statistics from the game, guard-heavy La Salle out-rebounded UMass, 37-35. The Explorers finished with a 15-3 edge in fastbreak points, and held the Minutemen to just 8-for-27 shooting from 3-point range.

Cohen’s double-double was a bright spot, and he was efficient offensively (6-for-10 shooting, 9-for-12 free throws).

“He’s played well three games in a row now,” Martin said of Cohen. “He’s trying to understand the responsibility of winning, not just being a good player. He battled.”

Cross scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds for UMass, followed by Diggins with 14 points and Davis Jr. with 12 (3-for-5 from 3).

La Salle’s Daeshon Shepherd scored all 19 of his points in the first half, while Brickus also scored 19 points in the victory.

UMass doesn’t have much time to recover, as VCU (17-8) comes to the Mullins Center on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. contest.

VCU takes down Minutewomen 

The UMass women’s basketball team fell to VCU on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center, 63-49.

Stefanie Kulesza led the Minutewomen (3-24, 1-14) with 13 points on 4-of-8 from the field and 3-of-6 from beyond the arc to go along with five rebounds and three assists.

Chinenye Odenigbo tied her career-high in scoring in her first career start with 10 points while Kristin Williams and Tori Hyduke each chipped in nine. Lilly Taulelei finished with a career-high 10 rebounds while Lilly Ferguson added five boards off the bench.

VCU improved to 22-4, 11-3.

UMass, which lost its 13th game in a row, returns to action Wednesday with a road game at Loyola Chicago.