Minutemen Win Battle Inside Against Fordham
by Ray Floriani
BRONX, N.Y. – For a minute forget the Xs and Os. It wasn’t about offensive sets. The plain and simple reason behind UMass’ defeat of Fordham at Rose Hill tonight came down to two things: defense and rebounding. In his press conference following the 74-59 Minutemen triumph, Fordham coach Dereck Whittenburg referred to those vital points several times.
“Defense and rebounding,” he said. “We didn’t do a good job with either tonight. It’s something we preached to our players the last few days but we just didn’t get it done. Against a talented, experienced team like UMass we have to play well in all facets to have a chance.”
In the first half it appeared the sellout crowd of 3,200 would be treated to a very competitive game. After a slow start, the shots started to fall for the Rams. Bryant Dunston stepped out and hit a few threes and a double-digit deficit was whittled down. Only a UMass trey in the waning seconds allowed the visitors to take a 30-27 lead at intermission.
The second half was another story. The Minutemen went on a 14-4 run over the initial eight minutes to establish a significant lead. More importantly, a tone was set. UMass scored three inside baskets and two treys during that juncture, an example of classic inside-out offense. On the other end, they completely negated any Ram opportunities in the paint, as Fordham scored only two field goals during that stretch, both fifteen foot jump shots.
“It was a great overall effort in a hostile environment,” UMass coach Travis Ford said. “I watched Fordham on tape several times and they are a very good defensive team. Tonight we got help from our bench, that is something you need this time of the year.”
Specifically, that help came from senior swingman Brandon Thomas (12 points) and junior forward Dante Milligan (nine points, 11 rebounds). Among the starters, senior forward Stephane Lasne did appreciable damage with an 18-point, 10-rebound effort.
While UMass bottled up Fordham’s inside game, Ford saw some defensive lapses the first twenty minutes. “We gave up more threes (5) than I wanted,” he said. “On offense we had seven turnovers which was a concern.”
In the second half, UMass was guilty of only three miscues on offense. The Rams did knock down four treys, but they came when the outcome was all but sealed and delivered.
The Rams were led by Dunston, their prime inside threat, with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Two of his four field goals, though, were from beyond the arc. The loss was Fordham’s (13-11, 6-6) fourth straight.
“We still have things (post season) in our reach,” Whittenburg said. “We just have to get back to playing the right way and worry about a game at a time.”
UMass improved to 18-7 (8-3 in conference), tied for second with Xavier and a half game behind Rhode Island in the Atlantic Ten.
- Chris Lowe gave UMass a good 7-point, 5-assist, 5-rebound outing at the point. “He (Lowe) does a good job but I’m on him a lot in practice,” Ford said. “As good as he is I know he can be even better.”
- Ford believes 6’9″ senior center Rashuan Freeman (eight points, three rebounds) can wind up in the NBA. “One on one, you have trouble matching up with him,” Ford said. “In the NBA he won’t be double-teamed. I really believe he can make a roster and contribute to some team.” Several NBA scouts were on press row for the contest.
- Neither Ford nor Whittenburg buys into any talk that the Atlantic 10 is experiencing a down year. “I think we have three teams worthy of NCAA bids,” Ford said. “Maybe the won-lost records don’t stand out as much because we’re so busy beating up on each other.”
Whittenburg defended the conference, saying,” Marcus Camby is gone, but we go through a change. We don’t have great players like Camby but we have very good teams like Xavier. We have parity unless you want a team to dominate, like St. Joe’s or GW in recent years. All our teams are competitive, which bodes for a good league.”
- Among the crowd there was a respectable UMass contingent. At halftime one young lady was seen wearing a Kentucky jersey. A UK fan on an icy night on Rose Hill? As she walked past it became clear. The number was five and “Ford” was lettered on the back, a throwback jersey of the UMass mentor’s playing days under Rick Pitino. On mentioning this, Ford noted, “I saw her (the lady in the jersey) when we came out for the second half. I have to say,” he added with a laugh,” I was really impressed.”
- UMass was coming off a 98-89 setback at Temple on Sunday. What was the reason for the turnaround? “Defense,” Ford answered. “We didn’t play any against Temple. We gave up 98 points but I have to say Temple hit (outside) shots against us like no one has this season.”
On the Baseline
This could probably be labeled “from the baseline to courtside.” A familiar face on press row was Peggy Ann Torney. Peggy graduated from Fordham in 2003. She cheered four years for the Rams and was cheerleading co-captain her senior year. A Bronx resident, Peggy is pursuing her masters in journalism at Columbia University, and covering basketball games is one of her class assignments. “I’m comfortable with writing about basketball,” she said. “I’ve cheered for basketball games for years and learned a lot by watching.” Covering games at her alma mater makes it even more special.