George Washington forward Patricio Garino (13) tries to free the ball from Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Smith Center in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. UMass won 67-61. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
AMHERST — In front of a weeknight crowd unlikely to provide the same atmosphere and energy the Mullins Center had Friday, the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team will take on a team it had to come from behind to defeat on the road.
Wednesday’s game against Rhode Island is awfully similar to the Feb. 12th George Mason game, which UMass lost 91-80 after coming out flat. Like the Patriots, URI is near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings, but UMass coach Derek Kellogg thought his team learned something.
“I think we’ve learned the lesson that we can’t let the atmosphere dictate how you play for 40 minutes. You have to create your own excitement and energy and get the fans involved by how hard you play,” Kellogg said. “I think they also realize that we’re truly playing for something at this point of the year. I feel like we’re going to come out, play hard and compete. I also feel like we’re going to have a good student turnout.”
In an effort to increase student attendance and the energy in the building, UMass is guaranteeing any student who goes Wednesday, game tickets to the March 8 game against No. 10 Saint Louis.
The Minutemen beat URI 73-69 on Feb. 9, a game that was part of a six-game losing streak for the Rams. URI snapped that streak Saturday with a win at St. Bonaventure.
E.C. Matthews started his late push for Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors with 24 points against the Minutemen. He’s averaged 23.8 points per game over the last five.
“I have respect for their players. They have a good team and they’ve played a lot of good games,” Kellogg said. “They’ve done what we couldn’t do, they won and won convincingly at St. Bonaventure. It’s about us coming out and making sure we play UMass basketball for 40 minutes.”
Senior forward Raphiael Putney said the Minutemen are treating it like a must-win game.
“We have to win the game tomorrow,” Putney said. “We just have to come together and play defensively sound. They have some good players. We have to come focused and ready to play.
Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley thought his team had reached a point where it could challenge anyone in the conference.
“We’ve played better than our record and I know a lot of coaches without real good records often say that. But I think a lot of our opponents view us as a dangerous opponent,” he said. “We have some outstanding young players that play with a lot of confidence and some really capable veteran players. I think we’ve played the better teams in the league pretty well this year. But UMass is a veteran team with a player of the year candidate in Chaz Williams. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”
MILESTONES — Putney enters the game needing 15 points to reach 1,000 in his career. The senior forward is averaging 9.9 points per game, but has scored at least 15 points five times this season.
“It feels pretty good. We have two games left in the Mullins Center,” Putney said. “It would be good if I could get it here.
Sampson Carter needs 97 points to reach the milestone. If Putney and Carter reach the mark, it would mean all five members of Kellogg’s first recruiting class reached 1,000 points. Terrell Vinson and Freddie Riley reached it last year, while Javorn Farrell reached the mark at Texas-Pan American earlier this month.
“We all came in together trying to bring UMass back. Even though Javorn, Terrell and Freddie aren’t here, we’re still playing for those guys too,” Putney said. “They helped to bring us to where we are now.”
SCOREBOARD WATCHING — UMass needs to win Wednesday to keep pace in the race for a bye into the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Saint Joseph’s win over Dayton keeps the Hawks in second. UMass enters the game tied for third with Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth.