It was a back-to-work Saturday for the University of Massachusetts basketball team. For a team that has only played once since before Christmas, it turned out to be a pretty good day.
"It felt great," UMass guard Carl Pierre said, after the Minutemen beat La Salle 83-67 at the Mullins Center. "We handed the cancellation of the [George Washington] game, we handled that pretty well. We stayed locked in. We continued to get our work in.
"If feels good to come out and get a wire-to-wire victory."
It wasn't quite a wire-to-wire victory, but when Pierre drove the baseline for a basket with 17:25 left in the first half, it put the Minutemen up 4-3. They never trailed again.
Pierre and freshman Cairo McCrory each had 15 points to lead a balanced UMass attack. McCrory had his 15 points and seven rebounds in only 17 minutes.
UMass led by as many 27 points early in the second half. While the Explorers did cut the lead to 15 at one point, the visitors from Philadelphia never got any closer.
In his post-game Zoom call with reporters, McCall was asked about how the win felt — particularly in light of Wednesday's cancellation of the George Washington game and the team being near the insurrection in Washington D.C. He said he wasn't worried that the incidents in D.C. would have impacted his club.
"I was concerned more about a slow start in terms of we haven't played in so long," McCall said. "We have a resilient group that loves to play and loves to compete. They love to be in the gym, they love to work. We've got self-motivated guys."
With the win, UMass improves to 3-3 and 2-1 in the Atlantic 10. La Salle falls to 5-6 and 2-2.
The game was a far cry from the 85-66 win in Philadelphia back on Dec. 16. In that game, Tre Mitchell had a game-high 37 points and 10 rebounds. This time, he managed to score only 11 points. Mitchell was 3 for 5 from the field but was 5 for 6 from the foul line. He was also a beast on the defensive boards, puling down a game-best 8 rebounds on the defensive glass. He had eight in the game.
What had been a big concern for McCall and his staff was that, in the three games the Minutemen had lost this year, Mitchell started slowly in each of them. That wasn't the case on Saturday.
"We always want to try to establish" Mitchell, McCall said. "It'll be interesting to see if teams switch pick and rolls like La Salle does. That's what they do. We haven't seen a lot of other teams in our league do that. I think if that's the case, we have to look offensively in terms of how we can get it in and, when they put two guys on him, how we can open up the floor."
Mitchell got his first hoop with 16:59 left in the half, on a nice high-low pass from Ronnie DeGray III. It was the first of two hoops that Mitchell scored and DeGray III got the assist on. Mitchell had eight points in the first 10-plus minutes, eight of UMass' 21.
Point guard Noah Fernandes, who had another carbon-copy game with 13 points, six rebounds, seven assists and only one turnover, said that when Mitchell can get off to a good start — no matter what the line looks like at the end of the game — helps them all out.
"Every game, teams are really preparing for Tre. They're going to double him and stuff like that. In practice, we put a pretty big emphasis on it," said the sophomore point guard. "That way, when we get in the game and Tre starts the game on fire, like he did [Saturday], it just opens up so many things for everybody, to be honest. We know Tre is a great passer and he's going to get the ball to everybody else."
There was one tie, at 2-2, and one lead change in 40 minutes. Pierre drove to the hoop for those two points to make it 4-3. That came after Clifton Moore had made 1 of 2 from the line. Pierre's hoop started a 10-2 run for the Minutemen that put them head 12-5.
UMass used a 12-0 run midway through the half to open up some breathing room. Even Dibaji Walker, who scored four points in the game, got into the fun when he drained a trey off a nifty pass from Fernandes.
UMass led 45-21 at halftime and extended the lead to 54-27 on back-to-back treys by Pierre. While the Explorers, who were led by Anwar Gill's 14 points and 11 from David Beatty, cut the UMass lead to 16, they got no closer.
It was another outstanding performance for Fernandes. The sophomore point guard from Mattapoisett had 13 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and just a lone turnover. It was Fernandes' fifth straight double-figure scoring game. He had four turnovers in a lost at Northeastern at the start of the streak, but has committed a combined five turnovers since then.
"He runs our team. Even late in the game, when they're pressing, he wants the ball in his hands," McCall said of Fernandes. "He's dribbling through guys. He makes the right play. He plays with a passion. What a performance."
If there was a downer in the win, it was that redshirt freshman guard T.J. Weeks twisted his left knee. McCall told reporters that he did not know if the injury was serious, as he hadn't heard from the medical staff yet. Weeks played only seven minutes, scoring four points but pulling down five rebounds.
Up next for UMass is a Wednesday home date against Rhode Island. The Rams, 6-6 and 3-2 in the Atlantic 10, pulled off their biggest win of the year by beating VCU 83-68. The win ended a seven-game VCU winning streak. Tip-off in the Mullins Center is 7 p.m.
LA SALLE (5-6, 2-2)
Gill 7-0-14, Beatty 4-1-11, Clark 2-2-7, Brickus 3-0-6, Moore 2-1-5, Spencer 3-0-8, Ray 4-0-8, Kenney 1-0-3, Hikim 1-0-3, Kimbrough 0-0-0. Totals 28-68, 4-9, 67.
UMASS (3-3, 2-1)
Pierre 5-2-15, Fernandes 3-4-13, Mitchell 3-5-11, DeGray III 4-1-9, Walker 1-1-4, McCrory 6-2-15, Garcia 1-6-8, Dominguez 1-1-4, Weeks 2-0-4, Gasperini 0-0-0, Antonopoulos 0-0-0, Marcus 0-0-0. Totals 26-56, 22-32, 83.
Halftime: UMass, 45-21. Rebounds: La Salle 33 (Moore 6, Gill 5, Clark 5, Ray 5). UMass 43 (Mitchell 8, McCrory 7). Assists: La Salle 11 (4 with 2 each). UMass 19 (Fernandes 7, DeGray III 5). 3-point baskets: La Salle 7-24 (Spencer 2-4, Beatty 2-4). UMass 9-25 (Pierre 3-10, Fernandes 3-4). Fouls: La Salle 23. UMass 12. Officials: Rusty Phillips, Jeremy Mosier, Tim Conner.