UMass basketball: Shorthanded Minutemen survive, edge Fordham 66-64 to reach 20 wins

Josh Cohen (23) drives baseline on a Fordham defender during the first half of UMass’ 66-64 win over the Rams on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.

Josh Cohen (23) drives baseline on a Fordham defender during the first half of UMass’ 66-64 win over the Rams on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center. PHOTO BY JARED DRANEY/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-06-2024 11:04 PM

AMHERST — There was a lot on the line heading into the UMass men’s basketball team’s matchup with Fordham on Wednesday night at the Mullins Center.

The Minutemen were looking for their first 20-win season in 10 years, their first three-game conference win streak of the year, and, if St. Bonaventure lost to George Washington, which it did, UMass would be in prime position to earn the final double bye for the conference tournament in Brooklyn next week.

But that meant the Minutemen had to beat the Rams, and they had to do it without their starting point guard, Keon Thompson, and a foundational rotation piece in freshman Robert Davis Jr.

Still, UMass found a way.

Although it wasn’t pretty, the Minutemen defeated Fordham 66-64 behind 19 points and nine rebounds from Josh Cohen, and timely buckets from Rahsool Diggins (16 points) and Matt Cross (15 points, nine rebounds).

“I’ve never played on a 20-win team in my life,” Cohen said. “I’m so happy. I don’t even know what to say. I’m so happy that this group was able to do it. We’ve worked hard all year, and this is the result.”

“This group works hard,” Cross added. “It feels good, but it also feels earned with this team. These young guys and new guys, like Josh, came in and helped change the program. It’s been fun.”

On the final play, a miscommunication between UMass players left Fordham’s best player, Kyle Rose, who had 15 points and hit four 3s already, wide open from beyond the arc. Rose’s shot was perfectly on line, and had it gone down, the Rams would’ve left Amherst victorious.

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But it clanked off the rim and out, and Cross pulled down the miss as time expired.

“We knew we wanted something at the rim, and something [that gave us] the opportunity to win,” Fordham head coach Keith Urgo said. “You can’t ask for a better opportunity than that… Kyle Rose has earned the right to make some shots. He couldn’t play any harder than he did, so we’re good with that [look].”

Without Thompson on the floor, UMass struggled to score against Fordham’s aggressive 1-3-1 half-court trap. The Rams took advantage of the Minutemen’s freshmen guards (Jaylen Curry, Marqui Worthy and Jayden Ndjigue) and their inexperience in pressure situations.

Although UMass didn’t turn the ball over much (only seven TOs), it still couldn’t get into sets efficiently on that end – leading to the 66 points scored for a team that averages in the high 70s.

“It’s why we were so sloppy offensively,” Minutemen head coach Frank Martin said. “Then they played that weird zone, and our guards tried, but Marqui and Jaylen really struggled understanding how to attack that zone. And that’s no different than when Keon struggled last year. But they both made some courageous plays.”

Martin didn’t give a definitive answer when asked if Thompson would be good to go for next week’s Atlantic 10 tournament, but did say he doesn’t believe his injury – which has been ruled as a foot injury – is long term.

Considering Thompson’s toughness, he’ll likely be suited up come the Minutemen’s first tourney contest.

UMass (20-10, 11-7 A-10) held the Rams to 29 points in the second half, and despite giving up a season high 17 offensive rebounds (12 in the second half), the Minutemen defense forced Fordham into tough shots all night. The visitors shot just 35 percent from the field.

Cross hit a huge 3-pointer that put UMass up six with 1:07 to go and two clutch free throws to give the Minutemen a three-point lead – one they wouldn’t squander – with 7.4 seconds remaining. After playing passively for the first half and change, Cross asserted himself at the right time and ensured his team the victory as he scored 10 of UMass’ final 13 points.

“It’s just taking whatever we have, and my teammates happened to find me when I was open and I happened to hit open shots,” Cross said. “I made some free throws at the end, but my team put me in that position. The whole game, while I’m struggling, Josh is killing it down low like he always does, Rahsool’s hitting his shots. Our team put us in that position.”

The Minutemen will earn the No. 4 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament with a VCU loss at Dayton on Friday night. That game is scheduled for 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

“Every single game in this league is like this, and the fewer games you play in one week, the better your chances are,” Martin said. “You tell me we only gotta play three? I’m signing up for it… It’s that time of year now. All the work is in. The disciplines, the stomping, the yelling, the encouraging. Now the trophy is on the table. If you win, you get a chance to play for it again. And if you don’t, then you’re done. Whether we play Wednesday or Thursday, we’ll be geeked up and ready to go.”