AMHERST — The road had dealt out its share of woes to UMass basketball over the last couple of weeks, so the chance to return home — even with a winter storm whipping through the region — allowed the Minutemen to get well for at least 40 minutes Wednesday night.
Five players scored in double figures and UMass was never seriously challenged after running up a 16-point halftime lead, going on to handle La Salle 79-67 in Atlantic 10 Conference basketball at the Mullins Center.
Three road losses in their last four games had dumped the Minutemen (18-4, 5-3 A-10) straight out of the national rankings — the only exception a 38-point wallop of Fordham at home on Jan. 26 — and although the storm limited Wednesday’s crowd to 4,345, UMass played comfortably and confidently in establishing early control against the Explorers (12-10, 4-4 A-10).
Chaz Williams led the Minutemen with a game-high 17 points and eight assists. Cady Lalanne and Trey Davis (three 3-pointers) each scored 13 points, with Derrick Gordon adding 12 with six assists and Sampson Carter 11. Raphiael Putney set a new career best with five blocked shots while contributing
eight points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
“That was a much-needed win, to kind of get us back on the right track,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg. “Our guys practiced really well for two days, so I was confident we were going to play well coming in. We locked up on defense, especially in the first half.”
La Salle coach John Giannini had a notion early on Wednesday that his team would face an uphill struggle.
“We were trying; they were just quicker and giving greater effort going towards the ball,” said Giannini. “We couldn’t stop them. In the first half, their intensity and effort were at a very high level that we just didn’t match. I could see it in warmups — they were focused, serious, together. They looked like a veteran team that knew they needed to win this game. They had that look, and they certainly gave that kind of effort.”
Putney got things started on UMass’ first possession, getting on the receiving end of a steal and lob by Gordon for a two-handed flush. Gordon’s layup five minutes in snapped a 7-7 tie and put the Minutemen ahead to stay.
The lead ballooned to double figures at 26-16 following a 3-pointer by Williams and a foul shot from Putney with eight minutes to go. Tyreek Duren hit a 3-pointer for La Salle to cut the lead to 28-21, but UMass strung together 10 in a row — highlighted by a pair of treys from Davis — to make it 38-21, and Davis beat the halftime buzzer with a driving layup for a 43-27 lead at the break.
UMass shot 55 percent from the field in the first half to only 30 percent for the Explorers.
Two freebies by Carter and a basket by Gordon bumped the lead to 20 to start the second half, and La Salle never got back within 14 points until the Explorers scored the final six points of the game to cut an 18-point deficit down to 12.
Jerrell Wright led La Salle with 16 points and seven rebounds. Duren had three 3-pointers as part of his 13 points and Khalid Lewis scored 10, with Steve Zack and Tyrone Garland adding eight apiece.
“We worked hard in practice, and we were looking for it to carry over. It did today,” said Williams. “Coach killed us in practice the last two days. I guess that’s what fueled us. It was great to get after it against somebody else, because about four guys went down with bloody noses, bumps on the head, from practice and hard work.”
A bump on the head kept UMass’ sixth man Maxie Esho out of Wednesday’s game, after an apparent concussion suffered in Saturday’s loss at Saint Joseph’s.
“That’s something we always shoot for, to start the game well, to come out with high energy. The crowd, I thought, was very helpful in having us do that,” said Kellogg. “Not being on the road was actually very nice. It felt like we were in ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ for a couple of days; that was kind of a rough stretch. Hopefully, we’re back.
“It gets to a point where they’ve gotta be willing to do it, and if not, you’re just kind of knocking your head against the wall. This was the time these
guys really were ready. We had a good run, it’s time to reset the deck, and then we all brought energy for a couple of days. Now I know we’re ready for this last push.”
Now at the halfway point of its Atlantic 10 schedule, UMass travels to Kingston, R.I., Sunday for a 4 p.m. game against Rhode Island (11-11, 2-5 A-10) at the Ryan Center.