La Salle coach Ashley Howard quickly noticed Saturday that the Explorers, who were coming off back-to-back wins, did not have the same urgency from the tip as a Massachusetts team that was trying to break a two-game slide.
The Explorers missed some easy shots early, fell behind by 24 points at the half, and were defeated, 83-67, by the Minutemen in an Atlantic 10 Conference game at Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass.
La Salle (5-6, 2-2 A-10) shot just 29% in the first half. The official play-by-play of the period had the visitors with 10 missed layups. Yes, a lot of them were contested, but the close-in bricks affected their focus on the defensive end.
The Explorers made just one basket in a stretch of 6 minutes, 22 seconds, and the Minutemen (3-3, 2-1) closed a 17-2 run with 12 straight points to take a 31-13 lead with 6 minutes remaining. The halftime score was 45-21 and La Salle never got closer than 15 in the second half.
“I thought we came out flat from the start,” Howard said. “I felt we had some opportunities early to really capitalize on some easy baskets that we didn’t convert, and then it gave UMass energy.
“UMass has a good young team, and their backs were against the wall coming off of two losses. They just played with more of a sense of desperation than we did today, and you saw it from the start.”
The Explorers paid plenty of attention defensively to 6-foot-9 sophomore Tre Mitchell, who burned them for 37 points in a Dec. 16 game at Tom Gola Arena that the Minutemen won 85-66. Mitchell scored 11 points Saturday, roughly half of his 22.6-point average.
But Mitchell’s supporting cast more than made up for the missing points. Senior Carl Pierre and freshman Cairo McCrory each scored 15 for the Minutemen, whose previous game Wednesday at George Washington was postponed because of the terrorist attack on the Capitol.
“That was our game plan, to minimize his touches,” Howard said, “but in doing that, we left ourselves vulnerable to the other guys to just be more aggressive. I think we may have focused so much on Tre Mitchell that we didn’t give the other guys the adequate enough attention that we should have given them.”
The Explorers played much better in the second half, shooting 51.4% and forcing 12 UMass turnovers. They got to within 15, 61-46, on Christian Ray’s layup with 7:40 left in the period, but the Minutemen scored 22 points in the final 7½ minutes off the La Salle press. La Salle was outscored from the free-throw line, 22-4, for the game.
Anwar Gill led La Salle with 14 points and David Beatty added 11.