La Salle was making a mini-run midway through the second half. Senior guard Saul Phiri had the ball about 30 feet from the basket. Phiri was closely guarded by a UMass defender, so he threw a bounce pass to his left.
Phiri thought his teammate was open, but a UMass defender slid from behind, stole the pass and took it the other way for two points. Phiri dropped his head immediately after making the pass. Coach Ashley Howard, usually calm and collected, turned and smacked his hand on the table as the UMass lead grew to seven.
The turnovers began adding up in the second half and UMass took advantage Wednesday night to defeat the Explorers, 75-64. The Explorers (14-15, 5-12 Atlantic 10) had an 11-4 advantage in points off turnovers at the half although facing a 31-24 deficit, but UMass (14-16, 8-9) ended the game with a 14-13 advantage. A miscue or UMass basket followed every second-half run the Explorers had.
La Salle had seven scholarship players dressed for the game. Playing different lineups is something the Explorers have done often, but they were forced to play five-guard lineups due to the lack of size available.
David Beatty started for the first time since Feb. 12 and took advantage. Beatty led the Explorers with a career-high 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting. Phiri added 13 points and Jared Kimbrough scored 10.
La Salle shot 42% in the second half and 37.5% overall. Its offense improved, but so did that of the Minutemen, who shot 50% in the second half to finish at 47.1%.
Center Tre Mitchell led UMass with 24 points and nine rebounds. His biggest shot came with 2:15 to play when he knocked down a three with 2 seconds on the shot clock to put UMass up 67-59.
“I don’t think our guys played bad,” Howard said. “It was just so many opportunities where I felt the game could’ve gone either direction if we made a shot here, got a loose ball there, or didn’t turn it over there.”
“Tre Mitchell is the rookie of the year in our league, and they know how to utilize him,” Howard said of Minutemen’s 6-foot-9 freshman. “They’re very well-schooled and prepared to play through him.”
“We don’t worry about it because it’s been multiple times we’ve been down bodies, and we throw [6-6 guard] Christian Ray out there at the five,” Howard said on the lack of size available.
La Salle’s depth has been decimated. Ed Croswell, its leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, recently left the program, and Brandon Stone and Scott Spencer were out due to injury. To make matters worse, senior guard Isiah Deas had been sick and was limited to 15 minutes. Howard said Spencer has been working out and Stone should be back “in a day or two.”
Kimbrough was the only forward available. La Salle played a zone defense when Kimbrough wasn’t in the game.