Saturday was one of the few times it is accurate to say UMass threw away a game.
The Minutemen were sloppy and wasteful with their offensive possessions in the first half, gifting Rhode Island a large lead with senseless turnovers. UMass committed 14 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes and the Rams scored 22 points off the misguided passes to take a commanding lead.
UMass cleaned up its act in the second half, but it was not nearly enough to erase the deficit it created in the first half. Rhode Island cruised to a 94-75 win and sent the Minutemen into a 1 p.m. showdown with George Washington in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament on Wednesday in New York.
“The turnovers really, really killed us in the first half from a basketball standpoint,” coach Matt McCall said. “I just didn’t feel like we had the intensity level that we needed to win a game on the road. That’s been at times a theme; at times we’ve had it, at times we haven’t.”
It didn’t take long for UMass (11-20, 4-14 Atlantic 10) to lose control of the game. After the first media timeout, the Minutemen had turnovers on five of their next six possessions, helping the Rams (16-14, 9-9) extend a three-point lead to 17.
The turnovers weren’t even forced by Rhode Island for the most part, just passes to empty space or passes that were too gentle and easily intercepted by the Rams.
“We were just allowing the pressure to throw us off kilter and ruining our offensive flow,” sophomore guard Carl Pierre said. “We just needed to slow down, take a step back, get back to our offensive basics and move on.”
The easy baskets were a major reason Rhode Island made 21 of its first 24 shots and ended the first half shooting 77.4 percent from the floor. The Rams scored 16 fast-break points in the first half and energized the crowd with their dunks as the lead continued to build.
Once UMass started to settle down on offense and take care of the basketball, the Rams began to return to normal levels of shooting as they were forced to take contested shots.
“We could never get our defense set, they just came down and were taking layups,” McCall said. “They shot 77 percent from the field and that was all turnovers, that was all layups, there were no jump shots they made until we decided to go zone. It was pretty frustrating.”
McCall used just one timeout in the first half to try and stifle the avalanche of momentum, but Rhode Island still scored six more points before KeonClergeot snapped the 16-0 run with a 3-pointer. The second-year coach didn’t take one the rest of the way and UMass often exited its huddles well before the buzzer sounded for teams to return to the floor.
McCall said some of that is not knowing how much time is left in a break, but a large part is the message wasn’t complicated and eventually McCall was sounding like a broken record.
“You burn a timeout and you’re saying the same exact things in the timeouts, the medias you’re saying the same thing,” McCall said. “‘Where’s our intensity level? Where’s our energy? Where’s our fight? Our resilience?’ … You end up saying the same thing and you keep burning timeouts and we’re just going to end up saying the same thing.”
The message eventually sunk in for UMass in the second half as it finally tested Rhode Island’s resolve after trailing by as many as 31 in the first half. The Minutemen shot 55.9 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes and committed just three turnovers in that span. They cut the deficit to as little as 16 with seven minutes left.
However, that was as close as UMass would come despite Pierre scoring 19 of his team-best 21 points in the second half. McCall said that type of pushback was something he wants his team to build off of heading into the conference tournament next week.
“There was some fight,” McCall said. “We had some chances in the second half. We got it below 20 and just couldn’t get a stop that we needed to cut into it more. Guys kept competing and I was proud of certain guys just for that.”