UMass basketball: Rahsool Diggins keys second-half charge as Minutemen run away from George Washington 81-67

UMass’ Jaylen Curry (2) puts up a shot against George Washington during the Minutemen’s 81-67 victory on Saturday at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass’ Jaylen Curry (2) puts up a shot against George Washington during the Minutemen’s 81-67 victory on Saturday at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass’ Daniel Hankins-Sanford (1) puts up a shot against George Washington during the Minutemen’s 81-67 victory on Saturday at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass’ Daniel Hankins-Sanford (1) puts up a shot against George Washington during the Minutemen’s 81-67 victory on Saturday at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 01-20-2024 5:02 PM

AMHERST — UMass freshman guard Jayden Ndjigue stripped George Washington’s Zamoku Weluche-Ume, Jaylen Curry picked up the loose ball, and sprinted the other direction – leading a four-on-two fastbreak.

Instead of taking it himself, which he certainly could’ve done given his hot shooting, Curry (17 points) dished it off to Rahsool Diggins, setting the junior up with an uncontested 3-pointer on the wing. Diggins set his feet and let it fly.

Curry jogged back on defense with three fingers already in the air, and sure enough, Diggins splashed home his fifth 3 of the game to put UMass ahead by 22 points – its largest lead of the game at the time with 6 minutes, 18 seconds remaining.

Diggins poured in both a game and career-high 25 points, and added five assists, to lead the Minutemen to an 81-67 win over George Washington on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center.

“Just knowing where my shooters are at on the court, and I knew [Rahsool] was running to the 3, so I gotta give him that every time,” Curry said. “That’s how that played out.”

That small act of unselfishness defined the Minutemen’s win – their first in three games without senior Matt Cross. UMass tallied 22 assists, and saw five players notch double-figure scoring. Aside from Diggins and Curry, Josh Cohen (15 points, 12 rebounds), Keon Thompson (13 points, four rebounds), and Daniel Hankins-Sanford (10 points, eight rebounds) each made impacts on the offensive end of the floor.

UMass had 22 assists on 33 made field goals, including five players with at least three. The crisp ball movement led to wide-open shots, especially in the second half. With Cross and his 18 points per game unavailable, everybody stepped up accordingly.

“Yeah, but I tend to not think about it,” Diggins said when asked if he feels the need to shoulder more of the offensive load with Cross out. “We play team basketball, we don’t lean on one guy. Matt doesn’t just score, he also rebounds, defends, does a lot of other things that I can’t do by myself. I think us coming together as a whole was the best thing we could do without having Matt.”

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After heading into the halftime break tied at 31, UMass head coach Frank Martin stressed to his team to focus heavily on the defensive end. The Minutemen had surrendered a handful of easy looks to George Washington on the perimeter (the Revolutionaries made three straight shots from behind the arc to take a 20-16 lead, their biggest of the game), and Martin knew if UMass was to win the game, it would be because of its dominance on defense.

“Honestly, he doesn’t say too much about offense,” Diggins said.

“Going into the locker room [at halftime], he’s all about defense,” Curry added. “Nothing about offense. Our defense led straight to everything on the offensive end.”

That message was received loud and clear. The Minutemen opened the second half trading baskets with George Washington, but then it was all UMass.

The Revolutionaries didn’t score for nearly six minutes from the 19-minute mark down to a little over 13 minutes in the second half. Eight of their 15 turnovers came in the second, and they shot only 36 percent for the game. UMass erupted on a 19-2 run over that stretch, led by Diggins – who had 18 of his 25 points over the final 20 minutes – and his scorching shooting.

“Early in the second half, he made one,” Martin said. “And I came down and ran a play for him right away, on purpose, to make sure he could let it go again. And that one went in, too. And then his whole demeanor defensively completely changed. I’m happy he was rewarded.”

The lead stretched to as many as 24 with under four minutes remaining in the game, and Martin emptied his bench soon after. As each starter subbed out, all 3,500 of the UMass faithful stood up and showered them with cheers.

George Washington’s star guard James Bishop IV, a guy even Martin said would be his vote for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year right now, was shut down by Keon Thompson and that stingy UMass defense.

Bishop IV shot 2-for-14 and was held to eight points (lowest in conference play). He also coughed up a game-high five turnovers, his second-most in a game this year. Thompson hounded Bishop IV possession after possession, and didn’t let him get any easy looks at the basket.

“The bottom line, when you play somebody like Bishop, the initial defender has to be really disciplined, tough as nails, and not get his feelings hurt because Bishop is gonna make shots,” Martin said. “I thought Keon created that personality today.”

UMass (12-6, 3-3 A-10) welcomes Saint Joseph’s on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. battle with the Hawks. Cross (left ankle) is listed as day-to-day, but there is hope that he should be ready to make his return on Tuesday after a three-game absence.