McCall coach

MIKE WALSH — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE

UMass coach Matt McCall and his team bring home their first road victory of the season. The Minutemen got 21 points from Rich Kelly and a 11-point, 10-rebound double-double from T.J. Weeks as they beat La Salle 77-71.

The bus ride home will be a good one for coach Matt McCall, and his University of Massachusetts men's basketball team.

Just don't tell McCall and his players that the piano they've been carrying on their backs while on the road is gone. They'll say it was never there.

"That's a topic of conversation for you guys," McCall said to reporters on a video conference after the Minutemen beat La Salle 77-71 Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

"We just get back to work. We try to focus on the things we can control," he said. "We did not play well at Saint Louis. We had some chances [on the road] at Davidson and we had some chances at Richmond as well. The whole losing games on the road, we just focus on what we can control, and that's getting better and improving."

The Minutemen led twice in the first half, trailed by 10 at halftime and by as many as 16 points just three minutes into the second half. It was a deep 3-point basket by Kelly with 5:44 left that gave UMass a 64-62 lead. While the Explorers did cut the UMass lead to one point a minute later, the home team could not get the lead back.

Playing without leading scorer Noah Fernandes, who remains in concussion protocols, Rich Kelly had a game-high 21 points to lead a UMass team that had four players score in double figures. Trent Buttrick had 16 points, 10 in the second haf, while T.J. Weeks and Javohn Garcia had 11 points each. Weeks had 10 rebounds for a double-double.

"We haven't fared well on the road since I've been at UMass. It always seemed, even a couple of years ago, that was a big topic of conversation. We won at La Salle. We won at Fordham. We found a way to win some games on the road at the end of the season," McCall said. "We just have to get better.

"I'm glad we got a road win, so we can look past that topic."

With the win, the Minutemen are now 9-10 and 2-5 in the Atlantic 10. La Salle, who got 18 points from Josh Nickelberry to lead the way, falls to 6-11 and 1-6 in conference play.

After having lost four straight games, the Minutemen have now won two of their last three contests.

It was a rough first half for UMass, as the Minutemen shot 32 percent from the floor and were only 3 for 11 from outside the 3-point arc. The game was tied at 30, when the Explorers outscored UMass 12-2 over the final 2:54. In that time, UMass did not make a basket. And when Anwar Gill hit a 3-point shot with 2 seconds left, it was 42-32.

La Salle upped that lead to 16 points when Jhamir Brickus converted on a fast break just three minutes into the second half. On other nights, that might have been curtains for UMass. Not on Wednesday.

It started with back-to-back 3-point basket by Buttrick. The second one came after a turnover by Jack Clark.

"I just think we showed unbelievable resilience," McCall said. "We just had to rev up the defensive intensity. Even at the half, I asked them 'Guys, what do we have to do right now?' We gave up 42 points in the first half. They're scoring at will. They're making too many threes. I said, let's do this. Let's abandon the zone and find out who can really, really sit down and defend for us in the second half."

Three times down the stretch, the Minutemen cut the lead to one point. The first two times, they couldn't get over the hump.

But finally, Buttrick blocked a shot by Brickus, got the defensive rebound and started the fastbreak. Rich Kelly got the ball and his NBA-range trey hit the bottom of the net, to make it 64-62. 

While the Minutemen never trailed again, La Salle did make it interesting, tying the score at 71 on a Jack Clark hoop, causing McCall to call time out.

Out of the time out Rich Kelly drove toward the basket, found Javohn Garcia for a layup that put UMass ahead 73-71, with 43 seconds to go. The UMass defense shut out La Salle the rest of the way, to earn the victory.

Anyone looking for one stat to point to that helped UMass earn the win, it was the 44-27 advantage on the boards. UMass had outrebounded La Salle 19-14 in the first half, but had a 25-13 advantage in the final 20 minutes.

"That's an effort thing, and that's all we talked about was our effort," McCall said. "We can control that. We can control turning around and blocking out. You can't always control if the ball's going in the basket, and it didn't really go in very much in the first half like in Saint Louis. We can control blocking guys out and putting our focus there."

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UMASS (8-10)

Buttrick 5-9 3-4 16, Steadman 2-7 0-0 4, R.Kelly 7-13 5-6 21, C.Kelly 2-8 5-6 9, Weeks 3-12 3-4 11, Garcia 3-5 5-6 11, Jones 2-7 0-0 5, Santos 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-61 21-26 77.

LA SALLE (6-11)

Doucoure 2-3 0-0 4, Moore 6-14 0-0 14, Brickus 2-6 4-4 8, Clark 6-11 2-2 16, Nickelberry 7-12 1-3 18, Gill 3-6 1-2 9, Ray 0-2 0-0 0, Shepherd 1-3 0-0 2, Brantley 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 27-59 8-11 71.

Halftime_La Salle 42-32. 3-Point Goals_UMass 8-22 (Buttrick 3-6, R.Kelly 2-4, Weeks 2-6, Jones 1-1, Garcia 0-1, Steadman 0-1, C.Kelly 0-3), La Salle 9-27 (Nickelberry 3-7, Gill 2-4, Clark 2-6, Moore 2-6, Brantley 0-1, Ray 0-1, Brickus 0-2). Rebounds_UMass 36 (C.Kelly 10), La Salle 21 (Clark 5). Assists_UMass 16 (R.Kelly 6), La Salle 18 (Brickus 8). Total Fouls_UMass 13, La Salle 17.

Howard Herman can be reached at  hherman@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6253. 

Sportswriter-Columnist

Howard Herman is a sports columnist at The Berkshire Eagle. The dean of full-time sportswriters in Western Mass., he has been with the Eagle since 1988, and is a member of the New England Baseball and Basketball Hall of Fame.