UMass basketball: Minutemen hold off Rhode Island despite free throw woes 81-79

UMass’ Jaylen Curry (2) goes to the basket against Rhode Island during the Minutemen’s 81-79 victory on Sunday at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass’ Jaylen Curry (2) goes to the basket against Rhode Island during the Minutemen’s 81-79 victory on Sunday at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass’ Matt Cross (33) goes to the basket against Rhode Island during the Minutemen’s 81-79 victory on Sunday at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass’ Matt Cross (33) goes to the basket against Rhode Island during the Minutemen’s 81-79 victory on Sunday at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By JEFF LAJOIE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-11-2024 5:20 PM

It seems that no matter what happens during a UMass men’s basketball game, all roads lead to a photo finish in the end.

Such was again the case on Sunday at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

The Minutemen trailed Rhode Island for almost the entire first half, but exploded after halftime to snatch control of the game and lead by as many as 14 points. A comfortable win was not in the cards however, as the Rams charged back within one possession in the waning seconds.

But despite a miserable 1-for-6 finish at the free throw line in the final 21 seconds, UMass won the war of attrition. The hosts survived a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer to hold off their former Yankee Conference rivals for a 81-79 Atlantic 10 victory.

UMass improved to 15-8 overall, 6-5 in the league while the Rams dropped to 11-13, 5-6. Rhode Island had won the first meeting between the two teams, 89-77, back in January.

“It’s a win, it’s a February win against a team that beat us pretty good the first time around,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said. “We defended and we fought and figured out a way to win the game.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Starbucks plans Mohawk Trail shop in Greenfield, Friendly’s to close
Greenfield Police Logs: Feb. 13 to Feb. 22
My Turn: Biden’s record and accomplishments are extremely positive
Former Greenfield police chief warned of legal action over raise
Maeve M. Sherry: Push back on the CDC’s Covid-19 isolation policy
My Turn: A terrible report card for Greenfield High School

Jaylen Curry, one of five players in double figures for UMass with 10 points, had a chance to ice the game at the charity stripe with his team up 81-79 and 4.2 seconds remaining. But the freshman missed both free throws, and Rhode Island charged down the court. Luis Kortright got a good look for the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, but his shot was just off the mark and the Minutemen survived.

UMass continued its struggles from free throw line, finishing the game just 8-for-18.

“We didn’t make the free throws but we got the [defensive] stop,” said UMass guard Rahsool Diggins, who missed a pair from the stripe during that late 1-for-6 stretch. “It is an emotional rollercoaster… in those [end of game] situations, since we’ve been in them so much, I think now we’re pretty confident.”

Matt Cross made a pair of heads-up hustle plays to keep possession for the Minutemen in the final 30 seconds after missed free throws, otherwise the final outcome might’ve looked very different.

UMass trailed for the majority of the first half, as Rhode Island’s largest lead of 25-16 came after a Jaden House jumper with 7:37 remaining.

The Minutemen struggled from the outside in the first half, shooting just 4-for-16 from 3-point range, but Curry hit a pair of 3s just before halftime to help his team get within 35-32 at intermission.

That hot shooting continued in the second half, and UMass exploded for a 13-1 run to take a double-digit lead at 68-54. All told, the Minutemen were 7-for-12 from 3-point range in the second half after the poor start from deep.

The team’s biggest lead reached 70-56 with 5:36 remaining after a Cross layup, but Rhode Island didn’t go away. The Rams answered with a 16-4 run over the next 3:40, getting within 74-72 after a Brandon Weston free throw with 1:56 to play.

Diggins made a huge 3 with 59 seconds remaining to make it 78-72, but missed free throws and two late 3s from Kotright set up the uneasy final few moments.

“I tried to be positive,” Martin said of his postgame talk. “We’re a team that’s in the hardest part of the season, and when you’re a winning team in February, everyone’s coming for you. We’ve got a lot of guys that are freshmen and don’t understand the severity of one mistake. Our older guys, the last two weeks has been a bit of a rollercoaster.”

Diggins scored a team-high 18 points for UMass, including a 6-for-11 clip from 3-point range. Keon Thompson made a huge impact for the Minutemen in the second half, where he scored 14 of his 16 points to go with six rebounds. Josh Cohen (13 points, 6 rebounds) and Cross (10 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) keyed the front line. UMass held a 39-31 edge in rebounding.

Next up for UMass is a road game against league-leading Richmond (17-6, 9-1) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. It will be a tall task for the Minutemen as the Spiders are a perfect 12-0 at the Robins Center this season.

Minutewomen fall at Fordham

The UMass women's basketball team fell on the road to Fordham on Saturday afternoon at Rose Hill Gym, 64-50.

Stefanie Kulesza tied her career-high in steals with eight to pace the Minutewomen (3-22, 1-12).

Kristin Williams led the Minutewomen with 17 points while Kulesza and Alexsia Rose each chipped in nine. Bre Bellamy added five rebounds with Lilly Taulelei finishing with three steals and two blocks.

UMass returns home to the Mullins Center on Wednesday for their Play4Kay game against Rhode Island. The Minutewomen and Rams tip-off at 6 p.m.