AMHERST — It had been a rough 36 hours for the coaches and players at the University of Massachusetts. It was announced on Tuesday afternoon that head coach Matt McCall’s tenure as coach would end at the conclusion of the season.
That announcement seemed to forge a sense of resolve in the Minutemen.
“Me personally, I was not accepting a loss tonight,” UMass guard Rich Kelly said. “We are not losing tonight. That is not happening.”
And on McCall’s final night inside the Mullins Center, it did not happen. T.J. Weeks had a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Kelly added 15 points as the Minutemen beat Fordham 81-73, earning a measure of revenge after losing to the Rams 85-73 in The Bronx on Monday.
UMass coach Matt McCall meets with reporters after his final home game. McCall will not return next year. pic.twitter.com/mC83qdE5A3— Howard Herman (@howardherman) March 3, 2022
For many, the game and its outcome were secondary to Tuesday’s news that McCall was being relieved of his duties. During a noontime video conference with reporters, UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said the search would begin immediately for a successor. McCall had been hired to replace Derek Kellogg as the head coach.
It was a somewhat subdued McCall who met with reporters inside the Mullins Center’s Green Room.
“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I’ve had the last five years to be able to coach at such a special place. I’m thankful for [athletic director] Ryan Bamford and his leadership, and the opportunity that he and Chancellor [Kumble R. Subbaswamy] gave me,” McCall said. “I didn’t want tonight at all to be about me. I wanted it to be about our team and our players.”
McCall came here five seasons ago after two years as the head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. With Wednesday’s win, the Minutemen are now 13-16 and 6-11 in the Atlantic 10. If the Minutemen don’t make a long run in the upcoming Atlantic 10 tournament, McCall’s teams will have finished with sub-.500 records in four of the five seasons.
“I’m a former student-manager that worked my way up to an Atlantic 10 head coach,” McCall said. “I think this experience the last five years, I’m a better coach. I’m a better leader. I’m a better husband. I’m a better father from going through what I’ve gone through these last five years. This doesn’t define me.
“Me and my family are excited about the opportunity for us and what’s next.”
But first, there was a matter of the Senior Night game. Rich Kelly, Trent Buttrick, Michael Steadman and Greg Jones were all honored before the game, and they all started. That might have been why the Minutemen got off to a slower start than they might have anticipated.
“I thought we were a little flat and a little energy-less to start,” McCall said. “We started the four seniors and we have three frontcourt players out there, and we don’t really run a lot of offense with three frontcourt players out there. I thought we kind of settled in, got some subs in there. I thought our bench gave us a lift in the first half.”
In the game, UMass had 38 bench points to 23 for Fordham.
UMass led 44-31 at intermission thanks to 10 points from Kelly and six from Buttrick. That 13-point lead started fading early in the second half as the Rams made a run. A 3-point basket by Kyle Rose with 17:11 to play cut UMass’ lead under 10 points for the first time since late in the first half.
Gradually, Fordham shaved points off the lead. After going 3 for 12 from 3-point range, the Rams were 5 for 15 in the second, and they made three consecutive baskets from long range. And when Josh Colon-Navarro hit one from deep with 13:01 left, it was a 55-52 lead for UMass, and once again, it was a tight one.
Fordham, however, could not get the lead. The Rams tied the game on a hoop by Darius Quisenberry, but Quisenberry missed the free throw for a 3-point play. Weeks snared the rebound, sent a pass ahead to Kelly and he found Buttrick for a 3-pointer that put UMass up 65-62. The Minutemen never trailed again.
UMass locked up the win by going 8 for 9 from the foul line in the final two minutes.
Noah Fernandes scored only eight points, but he had a game-high six assists.
Quisenberry had 15 points to pace the Rams, while Chuba Ohams had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
The regular season ends Saturday at George Mason. Then the Minutemen will prepare for the Atlantic 10 Tournament on Wednesday, March 9. The tourney will be played at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.
With the win and an 80-74 loss for Rhode Island at home against Saint Louis, UMass has a 6-11 record, while Rhody is 5-11. If the Minutemen beat Mason on Saturday and Rhode Island loses at Saint Joseph’s, UMass would avoid the Wednesday first-round games.
“We still have a chance,” said Weeks. “Everybody says our season is over. It’s not over. We still have a chance. Why not make a run? Why not beat every team from here on out?”