UMass basketball: Second half rally against VCU a microcosm of the season as Minutemen never threw in the towel

UMass head coach Frank Martin shouts instructions to his team against VCU during the Minutemen’s Atlantic 10 Conference quarterfinal game on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

UMass head coach Frank Martin shouts instructions to his team against VCU during the Minutemen’s Atlantic 10 Conference quarterfinal game on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. PHOTO BY CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By JEFF LAJOIE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2024 7:01 PM

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – A year removed from the worst loss in its Atlantic 10 conference tournament history, the UMass men’s basketball team stared another one directly in the face halfway through Thursday’s Atlantic 10 quarterfinal at Barclays Center.

From a 71-38 loss to Richmond in the 2023 event to a 17-point halftime deficit against VCU on Thursday, a second consecutive historic loss very well could have been on the horizon.

But as they did all season, the Minutemen showed resolve.

To borrow a line from hockey coach Greg Carvel: “NewMass.”

Rahsool Diggins scored 20 of his team-high 21 points in the second half, and UMass stormed back to make it a two-possession game (65-59) after a Diggins 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.

But while the Minutemen exerted plenty of energy to chip away, they were unable to find that extra little burst to steal the game. The Rams held UMass scoreless the rest of the way, closing on an 8-0 run for a 73-59 victory and a spot in the semifinals against Saint Joseph’s.

It was the largest margin of defeat for UMass all season. The 14-point loss eclipsed a 12-point defeat at Rhode Island back on Jan. 13.

“Our guys emptied the tank, man. I wish I could be here with them on Sunday [to play in the championship game], obviously we don’t have that opportunity but I know they’ve made coaching for me a whole lot of fun,” UMass head coach Frank Martin said. “I know showing up to work every day is a whole lot of fun.”

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The will to compete was never an issue with this UMass team. The Minutemen (20-11) only lost three games by double-digit margins all season, and regularly battled back from deficits – much like Thursday’s quarterfinal contest.

“The hole was too big to crawl out of against a team that really doesn’t turn the ball over, but my guys emptied their tank from day one this year,” Martin said. “They’ve left it on the court every single time we’ve left the court and today was no different.”

It’s a step forward in every facet for a program that limped to the finish line in Martin’s first season. That Atlantic 10 tourney loss to Richmond had the Minutemen trailing by 13 points at intermission, only to see the Spiders outscore them by a 40-20 margin the rest of the way. UMass went 2-8 in its final 10 games of the 2022-23 season.

No such thing on Thursday, nor this season (8-4 in its final 12) though Martin said there was no special message to his team with the chips down time around.

“These kids have given us everything that we’ve asked of them…. it’s postseason play, there’s no Knute Rockne speech that overcomes a 17-point [halftime] deficit,” he explained. “Back in November I might have gone in there and challenged people a little bit, challenge a winning team… but come on, there’s a reason they’re winners.

“We spoke about how we created the problem… we just gotta figure out a way to get us to where we can win the game in the last media segment of the game. And that’s what we did. Unfortunately we had those empty possessions at the end of the game.”

Twenty wins for the first time since 2013-14, a top four finish in the A-10 regular season… there’s marked improvement in year two for Martin’s Minutemen, and the second half of Thursday’s loss was yet another sign that the program is heading in the right direction.

“You get away from the disappointment of the present moment and then you embrace the collective journey,” Martin said. “You don’t overreact to bad days and over-celebrate the good days, you have to understand that the journey is long and it’s complicated.

“There’s some guys hurting in that locker room… when you fully commit to something, you get to deal with all of the emotions,” he added. “Sometimes you get to deal with the emotions of winning… when you commit to it, when you don’t meet that, it hurts. That pain is healthy. It’s not healthy in the moment, it hurts. But as you get away from the moment, that’s a healthy pain.”

With the transfer portal and NIL, there are no guarantees as to what next year’s roster will look like. Expect some changes, but there’s a foundation in place here now, a will to compete. That couldn’t be said just 365 days ago.

“They’ve shown that they believe that we’re a good team,” Martin said of his club. “They believe that we can win. I think we’ve proven that. We got to go get better. And you don’t get better – everybody thinks that you fix your problems through recruiting. No, you fix your problems inside your own house.

“When my children misbehave, I don’t go recruit a new child,” he continued. “I make my child grow. When my child does something wrong at home, I don’t act like he ain’t good enough. It’s my job to show him how to grow so he can become a better human being. That’s the same thing we’re going to do. We’re going to help our guys grow from within.”