UMass to celebrate an unconventional group of seniors against Rhode Island

  • Djery Baptiste, right, of UMass, blocks a shot by Jalyn McCreary, of South Carolina, Dec. 4 at the Mullins Center. Randall West, Davonte Higginbottom and Baptiste will be honored on senior night Saturday when UMass hosts Rhode Island. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2020 8:46:22 PM
Modified: 3/6/2020 8:46:06 PM

AMHERST — Three seniors with three different paths to the UMass basketball program will be honored Saturday night.

There’s Djery Baptiste, the only scholarship player among the trio who joined the Minutemen as a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt in the middle of last season. Davonte Higginbottom was a three-year student-manager for the team before being asked to be a walk-on this season. And Randall West, the two-sport athlete whose almost helped the Minutemen advance to the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals two years ago in Matt McCall’s first season.

It is one of the more unorthodox trio of seniors for the Minutemen (14-16, 8-9 Atlantic 10) to honor before the 7 p.m. tipoff with Rhode Island (20-9, 12-5), but McCall said each has left a lasting mark on the program.

“This is an interesting group to say the least, but what a special group,” McCall said. “Each have brought something completely different to the table. Davonte completely served our program, even before I got here he was a student-manager and loved being apart of it. … Obviously, Randall, we’ve talked an enormous amount about him. I don’t know if there’s a homecoming king or a Mr. UMass, but if there is, he should get it. … Djery, thrusting him into a very difficult situation in the middle last year and for him to never change his attitude throughout this and all this transition and changes and for him to stay with that upbeat, positive attitude, it speaks volumes about his character.”

In between those ellipsis, McCall spoke about some of the moments that made these three seniors unique. In Higginbottom’s case, he tried out for the team as a sophomore but then went back to tackling his duties as a manager. He was part of the dedicated staff that McCall said he always saw on Sundays at the Champions Center, helping to make the program a better place.

When McCall thought about adding a walk-on this season, he didn’t hold tryouts, but trusted his makeshift scouting department – the other managers and director of operations Brian Grossman – that the legends of Higginbottom tearing up the rec center were true. For Higginbottom, the chance to wear the jersey and live out a dream was too good for him to pass up even if he knew his chances of playing were slim. Yet the Mattapan native said he has embraced the different type of impact he can have on this team off the court.

“They make me feel young again, even though I’m only 21,” Higginbottom said. “These dudes are 18 and 19 and they come in here with a ball of energy every day. … I have a different form of senior leadership just the things I do off the court, just being able to show them the types of habits they might want to form as well. They are way better players than me, but I can bring some things to the table and show them.”

In a more practical sense, Baptiste has become a mentor to many of the younger players as a fifth-year college basketball player. He has seen the court the past two seasons way more than either Higginbottom or West, but he has embraced being a role model just as much as his two senior counterparts.

In an interview in January, Baptiste remarked that he felt UMass was the perfect place for him to live out his purpose in this game. Although he is hoping to recover from his knee pain to potentially play in the future, he doesn’t want to discount the impact he’s had on the seven freshmen on this year’s team.

“It’s what I wished the older guys would do to me, that’s the way I look at it,” Baptiste said. “It just comes naturally, I liked it. Even in the recruiting process with Sean (East II), I was one of his hosts and I wanted him to come here because we clicked. You can’t put words to that, but the personalities matched. I love everybody and I want the best for them and whatever I can do to contribute to help the best they can be and to make a difference, to me, that’s what matters.”

As his athletic career in Amherst is finally starting to reach its conclusion, West teared up when talking about the impact McCall had on him for giving him this chance two years ago as a walk-on. Although he hasn’t been able to play since the end of January when his eligibility expired, he’s still been a critical part of the program. McCall said numerous times in December when West rejoined the team after football season than the following month before West’s final game that it was important to him to have West still be part of the program through the season’s conclusion.

Over the last six weeks, that role has been chipping in with wisdom about the Atlantic 10 or another observation he’s made from the end of the bench. West, though, said he was very appreciative to still feel apart of the team during this unique situation.

“Thankfully Coach McCall (strength coach Zane Scott) and the assistant coaches have all been really helpful in this transition, making sure I’m still apart of the team and still involved,” West said. “I still have a voice, which is what Coach McCall wanted me to do for this past couple of months. I’m very thankful for the experience.”


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