Shorthanded UMass basketball pulls away from Rhode Island

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 01-14-2023 11:40 PM

AMHERST – Rahsool Diggins’ confidence debuted in a UMass uniform. It looks good on him.

The sophomore UConn transfer poured in all seven of his career-high point total during a 12-point second half run that separated the UMass men’s basketball team from Rhode Island in a 75-65 Atlantic 10 Conference win Saturday at the Mullins Center.

The Minutemen trailed the Rams by one after an Ishmael Leggett layup 13 seconds into the second half. T.J. Weeks Jr. restored the UMass lead with a 3, then Diggins took the ball from Rhody guard Malik Martin and raced up the court for a layup. He drove through the defense for another layup and hit a step back 3 to give the Minutemen their biggest lead 39-28 with 17:13 remaining.

“Rahsool’s been trying to find confidence. He was a pretty good player in high school. He lost his faith last year at UConn, the majority of his own doing,” UMass coach Frank Martin said. “He'd been in our rotation helping us win games, and then the whole ‘we're getting close to the baby being born’ started, and his mind just left us.”

Diggins filled in at the starting point guard spot during Noah Fernandes’ ankle injury absence in December. He and his girlfriend welcomed their first child Dec. 31 while the Minutemen were at Saint Bonaventure.

“He’s dealing with a new responsibility, that's different. He played with a different aggression in practice (Friday), and it carried over to (Saturday),” Martin said. “Now he's making some defensive plays to get layups. Then he makes that three, and you see his personality coming out.”

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Diggins started in place of Fernandes, who didn’t play along with freshman RJ Luis after not participating in shootaround due to injuries. Freshman Keon Thompson rotated with Diggins at the point guard spot and finished with a career-high 31 minutes. He scored nine points with five assists and seven rebounds.

“It’s the same responsibility, just more opportunities,” Thompson said. “I always have to show up every day, put in the work, show the coaches that I'm ready for that responsibility, and (Saturday) I feel like I've shown it. I helped my team win.”

The Minutemen (11-6, 2-3 Atlantic 10) needed help after the opening few minutes. The Rams (6-11, 2-3) leapt out to a 10-3 lead in the first 4:12. UMass started 1-of-8 with a turnover.

Martin went to his bench, bringing in Wildens Leveque and Dyondre Dominguez. Dominguez drilled a 3 almost immediately. He played a season-high 30 minutes and contributed 12 points, seven rebounds and two steals amidst hustle plays diving for loose balls or elevating to contest shots.

“That's one of those guys that you want on your team and one of those guys that you hate playing against,” Thompson said of Dominguez. “He brings so much energy on the defensive end, and his energy on the defensive end just adds on to his offensive game.”

Leveque blocked three shots, grabbed six rebounds and threw down a two-handed putback dunk during UMass’ 12-0 run to open the second half. The Minutemen outscored the Rams 48-39 after halftime after they scored just 27 points in the first half.

Their lead never shrank to a single possession in front of a season-high 5,013 fans. That’s the Minutemen’s highest attendance figure since Feb. 2020 when Obi Toppin and his top-10 Dayton team visited.

“That was awesome man. I am so thankful. If we're gonna ask people for their time, their money and their energy, we better play the way we played (Saturday),” Martin said. “Now when we connect all those and we keep putting more and more and more people in there, it’s gonna be a whole lot of fun like it used to be around here.”

UMass snapped a two-game losing streak and won for just the second time in its last five outings.

“Before the break, you know, we won some games won the Myrtle Beach, so we're excited. When you win some games, especially a lot of us that haven't really been part of winning, you tend to get too excited,” UMass forward Matt Cross said. “You kind of get away from what got you there, what was winning for you. Frank just kind of got on top of us and made practice not easy let's say. Now we know, listening to him again after a good dub like that, every time we do what he says good things happen.”

Cross led UMass with a career-high 22 points. The Louisville transfer who started his career at Miami hit 12-of-14 free throws and pulled down seven rebounds. He surprised some of his teammates with a one-handed follow dunk that tied the game at 27 with 1:12 to halftime.

“Everybody on my team tries to get me to dunk more because I will in layup lines. They're like ‘why don't you do it in the game?’” Cross said. “It just doesn't work like that for me.”

The Minutemen received balanced scoring across the board. Eight players had at least five points. Brandon Martin and Weeks scored eight each.

“I'm really, really happy for these players that they figured out a way to compete to how we try to play and that they were rewarded,” Frank Martin said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>