A10 tournament: UMass basketball opens with red-hot Saint Joseph's

  • UMass sophomore center Tre Mitchell will be playing in his first conference tournament game when the Minutemen take the floor against Saint Joseph’s on Thursday in Richmond. Last year’s event was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. BILL BARRETT / SAINT LOUIS ATHLETICS

  • Carl Pierre and the UMass men’s basketball team are seeking their first Atlantic 10 tournament win since 2018 when they face Saint Joseph’s at 1 p.m. Thursday in Richmond. BILL BARRETT / SAINT LOUIS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/3/2021 6:28:15 PM
Modified: 3/3/2021 6:28:12 PM

Now it’s up to the UMass men’s basketball team to cool down the hottest team in the Atlantic 10.

The fifth-seeded Minutemen will face No. 13 Saint Joseph’s in the A-10 Championship Second Round at 1 p.m. Thursday at Richmond’s Robins Center.

The Hawks (5-14) have won their last four games after a 1-14 start. They took down No. 12 La Salle, 72-66, in the tournament opener Wednesday.

“I think we’re rolling right now,” Hawks freshman Jordan Hall said. “It’s the perfect time to be hot.”

Senior guard Ryan Daly has fueled Saint Joe’s renaissance. He’s averaging 23 points per game in the four games since returning to the lineup Feb. 20 at La Salle. Daly drilled a dagger 3-pointer with 1 minute, 15 seconds left that put the Hawks up seven and put La Salle away.

Three Saint Joe’s players hit double figures in the game: Daly, Hall (17 points) and Taylor Funk (12). The Hawks shot 35 percent from 3 as a team, and six players made a triple.

“They’re dangerous, shoot a lot of 3s,” UMass coach Matt McCall said. “It’s a pro-style offense with floor spacing and slipping pick and rolls.”

Saint Joe’s will be playing its third game in 67 hours when they take the floor against the Minutemen (7-6). The Hawks beat Richmond on the road Monday night then handled business against the Explorers on Wednesday with less than a full day to recover and prepare for UMass. Daly played all 40 minutes, while three other Hawks played at least 33.

“You’re only as good this time of year as your mind and your body,” Saint Joe’s coach Billy Lange said. “The next game starts, the second this one ends, and it’s about recovery.”

UMass, conversely, lost at Saint Louis on Monday night then flew to Richmond on Tuesday. The Minutemen checked into their hotel at 3 p.m. then underwent an hour-long COVID-19-related intake process. They didn’t practice but held a team meeting and had a meal before sending the players to their rooms for an early night.

After what McCall called one of UMass’ best practices of the season Wednesday at VCU’s practice arena, the Minutemen returned to the hotel. They couldn’t watch the La Salle/Saint Joe’s game because of COVID restrictions. UMass can only access the hotel, the practice facilities and the game arenas when they play. Each team received 60 tickets per game for coaches and players to distribute. The Minutemen gave them all to family members.

“You have to be able to adjust, be flexible to everything. For us eying these shutdowns and all of that adversity you have to go through and how tough it is, how we’ve handled it has been crazy,” UMass sophomore guard Noah Fernandes said. “We’ve been sticking to it. We had to refocus on our goal and be ready to go and get these dubs.”

The Minutemen have lost their last two games after exiting their latest pause Feb. 22. That followed an abbreviated two-game winning streak in early February without sophomores Tre Mitchell and Fernandes. Those victories over Fordham and Rhode Island capped a stretch of five wins in six games.

“We’re a big energy team. You watch us in our wins, you watch us in our losses, our losses we don’t have energy at all. On the bench, on the court, we sort of look flat,” Fernandes said. “In our wins we look like a completely different team, people on the bench are jumping around. You can see it watching it.”

UMass is seeking its first A-10 tournament victory since 2018. The Minutemen last reached the quarterfinals in 2016 as the No. 10 seed.

It will be the first conference tournament game for UMass’ five freshmen as well as its three sophomores after last year’s tournament was canceled by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(Thursday’s) completely about a mentality. Our mentality needs to start on the defensive end of the floor,” McCall said. “We need to have a mentality to get stops and get on the break. That’s when we’re at our best.”

The winner of Thursday’s game will face No. 4 Saint Louis in the quarterfinal round on Friday at 1 p.m.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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