For the first time in six years, the University of Massachusetts is breathing the rarified air that comes with leading the Atlantic 10. The Minutemen know, however, that it is way too early to do much more than take a quick glance from the top of the conference.
"I feel like we have the same level of confidence we've had since the start of the season. I feel like we have a ton of room to grow," UMass guard T.J. Weeks said after the Minutemen dispatched Fordham 65-46 Sunday afternoon in The Bronx. "I feel we haven't played our best basketball yet."
UMass may have, in fact, played its best 20 minutes of the season on Sunday, outscoring Fordham 44-15 in the first half. UMass shot 13 of 25 from the floor and was 9 for 14 from outside the 3-point arc. UMass' first six made shots in the first half were from long range, and the Minutemen did not make a 2-point shot until Weeks scored from just inside the arc with 8:10 to play in the half. Had he been one step farther back, it would have been eight straight treys.
With the win, UMass improves to 5-3 and 4-1 in the Atlantic 10. The Minutemen now share the top spot in the conference with 4-1 Saint Bonaventure. Fordham falls to 1-5, and 1-5 in conference play.
"I was really, really pleased and proud of our guys for the approach they had coming into the game. Just to get off to the start we did and play as well as we did in the first half," McCall said in an opening statement to reporters on his postgame Zoom call. "Everyone kept talking about a let down, let down game. We showed that we had the right approach.
"I thought we had great energy to start the game."
That, for those watching on television, might be the understatement of the week.
The Minutemen trailed 2-0 when Fordham's 6-foot-11 center Joel Soriano scored on a hook shot in the paint over UMass' Tre Mitchell. Mitchell got a bit back when he found Carl Pierre in the left corner for a 3-pointer. The Minutemen never trailed again.
After the assist, the UMass big man hit back-to-back 3-point shots and what was a one-point game was suddenly a seven-point advantage for the Minutemen.
The sophomore center from Pittsburgh had a game-high 24 points and pulled down eight rebounds. Weeks had 11 points, all of them coming in the first half when UMass used a 32-5 spurt to send television viewers seeking the AFC Divisional Playoff pregame show.
"It felt nice, knowing all the work I've put in on the off-days, extra shooting," Weeks said, "was finally paying off a little bit."
The Minutemen extended their lead to 44-15 at halftime as Carl Pierre hit a 3-point shot after Noah Fernandes penetrated into the paint and kicked the ball out for the rainbow three.
The 15 points given up by UMass were the fewest surrendered in a half since the Minutemen held Central Connecticut to 18 in November, 2019. The score that day was 39-18 at halftime and UMass won 89-43.
The Minutemen opened up with an 8-2 burst, making it 52-17 with just under 16 minutes remaining. Fordham responded with a 16-4 run to chop the lead down. While the Rams did get the lead inside of 20 points, the outcome of the game was never really in doubt.
Soriano had a double-double for the Rams with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Chris Austin chipped in with 10 for a team that has now lost two straight to UMass.
"I feel like it was us not staying in our offense," Weeks said, referring to the Fordham comeback, "not trusting the offense where we could get easier shots. I thought we just settled for threes rather than staying aggressive."
For his part, McCall said when they go over the tape of the second half, it'll be a good teaching moment for his young team.
"Absolutely," he said. "We're going to learn from this game, build on it and get better. The one thing is, we're happy we won and we don't want to take anything away from that. We're 4-1 in the Atlantic 10 and staying on top of the standings. We don't want to take away from that either. We can get better. There's a lot we can learn from, a lot we can grow from. We need to show the second half. We need show what we were doing well in the first half. We need to show what we were doing poorly in the second half, and get better from it.
"We need to enjoy where we're at for the next couple of hours, and then we'll move on to the next game."
Who UMass will play in that next game and when remains an open question.
The Minutemen are scheduled to play at the Mullins Center on Wednesday against Saint Louis before hosting Davidson next Sunday. But Travis Ford's Billikens had been in COVID-19 quarantine and haven't played since just before Christmas. If the game with UMass is postponed, that would be a week between games for the Minutemen.
But McCall said that might not be a bad thing. Weeks could use a little more rest for a sore knee and Dibaji Walker only played 12 minutes because of a wrist ailment. In addition, Kolton Mitchell had a collision battling for a rebound early in the second half, was shaken up and came out of the game. He did not return.
"[Athletic director] Ryan Bamford is working with the Atlantic 10 on just what's going on. I don't think we're playing Saint Louis," McCall said. "We're a little banged up, calling it like it is. We'd like to get 100 percent healthy. That's the most important thing for us right now.
"If we can add a team and get 100 percent healthy, we'll do it."
UMASS (5-3, 4-1)
T. Mitchell 7-18 7-7 24, Pierre 3-8 0-0 9, DeGray III 4-9 0-1 8, Fernandes 1-2 2-2 5, Walker 0-0 0-0 0, Weeks 3-10 3-4 11, Garcia 2-6 3-4 8, Gasperini 0-5, 0-0 0, Marcus 0-0 0-0 0, K. Mitchell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-59 15-18 65.
FORDHAM (1-5, 1-5).
Soriano 6-13 0-1 12, Austin 4-12, 2-4 10, Rose 2-7 2-6 7, Cobb 3-11 0-0 6, Navarro 1-3 0-0 2, Perry 2-3 2-4 7, Eyisi 1-1 0-0 2, Butler 0-0 -0 0, Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-51 6-15 46.
Halftime: UMass 44, Fordham 15. 3-point baskets: UMass 10-28 (T. Mitchell 3-9, Pierre 3-8), Fordham 2-11 (Perry 1-2, Rose 1-3). Rebounds: UMass 37 (DeGray III 10, T. Mitchell 8),39 (Soriano 12). Assists: UMass 12 (Fernandes 5, Garcia 3), Fordham 8 (Cobb 3). Turnovers: UMass 9 (T. Mitchell 4), Fordham 16 (Rose 3, Cobb 3). Fouls UMass 13 (Fernandes 3), Fordham 17 (Soriano 4).