UMass basketball: Minutemen outlast South Florida in herky-jerky affair (PHOTOS)
|Published: 12-02-2023 10:00 PM
AMHERST — Each fan who attended the UMass men’s basketball game on Saturday afternoon rubbed their eyes at one point or another to make sure what they were watching was real.
The Minutemen and South Florida combined to shoot 33-for-109, committed a total of 57 fouls, and turned the ball over 36 times (18 apiece) in what was an ugly, physical game at the Mullins Center. Even UMass head coach Frank Martin admitted the game wasn’t pretty, but, his team improved to 4-1 on the year with a 66-56 win over the Bulls.
“A lot of times, people say ‘Well, we played hard,’” Martin said. “Well, that’s great but it doesn’t mean you played well. We did play hard, they played hard… the physicality and defensive mindset that they play with, we needed that.”
Although Martin wasn’t thrilled with how his team played, games like Saturday seem to favor UMass because of the sheer hustle and grit of each player on the team.
“We like the messy games. That helps us,” Cohen said. “I mean, we play hard. We played harder than them. There was nothing obviously going in for us, but at the end of the day we're going to rely on our defense to win us games and that's what we did tonight. Defense travels, and hopefully we can keep carrying that through the whole season.”
Seven UMass players took at least five shots on Saturday, and only two of them converted 50 percent or more. Josh Cohen (4-for-7) continued his hot start to his Minutemen career with 21 more points and nine rebounds while adding a block and a steal. Cohen dominated down low. Time and time again he sealed South Florida’s big men down low to get good position. He drew 11 fouls which resulted in 18 free throws (he made 13).
Given last season’s rough points in the paint scoring output, having Cohen control the key has been a breath of fresh air.
“That's what we brought him here for,” Martin said of Cohen. “We struggled to score in the paint last year, it was an adventure. Josh is comfortable there, and he's rebounding it OK, not as well as he needs to. But his physicality and his approach, his mindset every day, is really good. That’s what helps this team.”
The other UMass player to shoot above 50 percent was Keon Thompson. In a game that had little to no flow because of the constant stoppage, Thompson did a tremendous job keeping the Minutemen organized. He tossed in 12 points, four rebounds, two assists, and a massive chase-down block while coughing up just one turnover.
Now a sophomore, Thompson has taken strides as a vocal leader as well. While he still may be young, he’s a veteran in terms of game experience to the seven UMass freshmen.
“The guys know I'm one of the hardest workers on the team, and I try to use that type of leadership to build others around me,” Thompson said. “Some of them are quiet, some of them are not so quiet. I try to motivate everyone else to just build on that. Me as a leader personally now, I feel like I talk more. I'm trying to be more vocal, just have everybody hear my voice.”
UMass’ defense held South Florida without a field goal for two separate stints of at least seven minutes, including a nine-minute drought from 12:45 to 3:45 in the second half. That stretch allowed the Minutemen to pull away enough to build a comfortable double-digit lead.
A 12-point lead felt like 20 in this game.
Bulls leading scorer Chris Youngblood averaged 14 points per contest heading into Saturday, but was completely stymied by UMass freshman Jayden Ndjigue (seven points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals, two blocks), who has become the Minutemen glue guy through five games. He held Youngblood to his worst night of his career – a 4-point, 1-for-13 shooting game. Youngblood also fouled out late in the game.
“That's why he got the assignment, because he's rock solid,” Martin said of Ndjigue. “And he understands, at such a young age, scouting reports and disciplines.”
Matt Cross has been almost a guaranteed 15 points and 10 rebounds for UMass each game this season. He came in averaging 18.5 points and 8.8 boards. But two fouls in the first six minutes caused him to sit for a chunk of the opening frame. He never found his groove as he finished with eight points and 11 rebounds.
Due to Cross’ foul trouble, and the fact that forward Daniel Hankins-Sanford played only three minutes due to an illness, Cohen had to take on a bigger role. The Saint Francis transfer played a season-high 35 minutes on the night.
“I'd rather Josh not have to play 35 minutes, but if he has to, there's a reason why we've had him run as much as we have to get him in condition where he can sustain effort,” Martin said. “There's a difference with him being a four year college guy, and a freshman, he gets it. I'm not into people taking plays off, but Josh knows when he can exert and when he can't. He doesn't play with wasted energy.”
Saturday was the first game UMass had played in 10 days. When building the schedule for this season, Martin thought this break would be beneficial for the young players to learn from and adapt to their first taste of action – as it gave more time for practice and teachable moments.
But as the game played out, it showed that the break hurt the Minutemen more than helped. The rhythm they had established disappeared.
“It's too big a break, too big a break after practicing every day since late September sometime,” Martin said. “Too big a break between games. Our guys were in a good routine and a good rhythm. I had an opportunity to schedule game either Monday or Tuesday of this week, and I chose not to.”
UMass hits the road for the first time this season on Wednesday against Towson. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.