UMass basketball: Minutemen bounce back, roll to 74-52 victory over VCU

UMass forward Matt Cross (33) drives baseline on VCU’s Michael Belle in the first half of the Minutemen’s game against the Rams on Tuesday night at the Mullins Center.

UMass forward Matt Cross (33) drives baseline on VCU’s Michael Belle in the first half of the Minutemen’s game against the Rams on Tuesday night at the Mullins Center. PHOTO BY CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-20-2024 10:26 PM

AMHERST — Anxious murmurs percolated throughout the Mullins Center crowd as a Roosevelt Wheeler layup cut VCU’s deficit to 48-38 – the closest it had been since 12-2 in the opening minutes – with exactly 14 minutes to go in regulation.

The UMass faithful could feel its team letting another big second-half lead slip away, hence the nervous chatter. But just as quickly as those negative thoughts came to mind, the Minutemen put them to rest.

Jayden Ndjigue nailed a pull-up mid-range jumper, Matt Cross converted a layup and Ndjigue cashed in from deep as the game’s next seven points belonged to UMass. That kick-started an extended 20-8 run that gave the Minutemen their largest lead of the night (22) at the under eight timeout.

UMass hung on the rest of the way to defeat VCU 74-52 on Tuesday night in a contest that it never trailed (it led for 39:32 of game time) – and one that was never all that close. The Minutemen are now 1½ games behind VCU for fourth place in the Atlantic 10.

“It’s a huge win for us,” UMass’ Josh Cohen said. “Obviously, we dropped one at La Salle [on Saturday], but we came back as a team and practiced really hard for two days and we were able to come in here and be prepared. This was a huge win for us.”

Cohen was due to deliver a dominant performance following some sub-par outings of late. The senior did just that with 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Cross was usual stat-sheet stuffing self, posting 18 points, 12 rebounds, two dimes and a block, while Rahsool Diggins chipped in 10 points.

Cross, who missed practice on Monday with a right hand injury, made all three of his 3-point attempts on Tuesday.

“Matt hurt his hand in a drill on Sunday's practice,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said. “He finished practice, but his hand was all swollen after and we thought it was broken. It was just a bruise. So, typical Matt Cross, [he played through it]. I told him to start hitting his hand before every game if you're going to shoot threes like that.”

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From the opening jump, the Minutemen hounded the Rams. Their interior paint presence and swarming help defense overwhelmed VCU early and often. UMass started the game on a 17-2 run in the first seven minutes and 30 seconds of action. 

VCU didn’t make its first field goal until the 8:50 mark of the first half, via a Max Shulga 3-pointer. Still, the Rams couldn’t penetrate the shut-down defense inside – led by the frontcourt trio of Cross, Cohen and Daniel Hankins-Sanford 

They finally scored their first two-point field goal with 4:32 remaining in the opening 20. Behind its relentless pressure, UMass took a 12-point lead into halftime.

“They got off to a great start… More than anything, their defense was bothersome to us,” VCU head coach Ryan Odom said. “We didn’t have a ton of poise out there early, missed some shots around the rim, made some errant passes. We got ourselves into some trouble.”

Cohen opened the final 20 with seven straight points, capped off by a 3-ball from the top of the key to put the Minutemen ahead 45-28.

 VCU chipped away over the next few minutes until UMass put it away for good. The Rams shot just 30 percent from the field, and their 13 turnovers led to 23 Minutemen points (compared to VCU’s three points off 12 UMass TOs).

Shulga, VCU’s leading scorer, was held to 10 points. Joe Bamisile shot 3-for-13, Zeb Jackson was 1-for-5 and Sean Bairstow didn’t score (0-for-8). It was a defensive masterclass from Martin’s group.

“You got guys who care,” Martin said of the key to his team’s success on that end. “Guys are growing up there… Guys are learning how to help each other. If you play well defensively as a team, then you got an unselfish team, because everyone understands how hard it is so everyone’s got each other’s back. It’s where we need to continue to grow, on the defensive side.”

Following a letdown over the weekend where it lost to last-place La Salle, UMass responded emphatically against the Rams. The Minutemen are now 8-1 after losses, with seven of those victories coming in dominant fashion – Tuesday being the latest example. They’ve now beaten two of the top four teams in the Atlantic 10 (Richmond, VCU), lost by four points to the No. 1 team, (Dayton) and were a last-second stop away from beating the No. 2 team (Loyola Chicago).

When the conference tournament comes next month, UMass is without a doubt a darkhorse and has a real opportunity to make some noise.

“We’re learning how to win,” Martin said. “I don’t worry about next month, heck I don’t worry about next week, I worry about today… But I did mention to the team from a confidence standpoint, because at the end of the day we all go to the same tournament and you gotta play people; we line up against whoever, our team should have confidence that if we play a certain way, we’ll have a chance to win the game.”

UMass (17-9, 8-6 A-10) returns to action on Saturday, with another massive home bout coming against St. Bonaventure. Tip-off is slated for 2:30 p.m.