After playing a grind-it-out brand of basketball in Saturday’s dreadful 50-49 loss to Winthrop, Ohio knew they would be in for a long night if they did not pick up the pace in Amherst.
In the season’s most exciting game, the Bobcats matched UMass’s frenetic pace but did not have an answer for Jesse Morgan, who put on a shooting clinic, scoring 35 points, including seven three-pointers as Massachusetts held off Ohio 85-76.
Morgan scored 16 points during the Minutemen’s gargantuan 23-1 first-half run that spanned just five minutes, to help turn a 12-point deficit into a 10-point lead.
Ohio’s backcourt came to play, led by D.J. Cooper’s 23 points and 10 assists (his third double-double in five games). Cooper moved past Geno Ford (’94-’97) into fifth place on the school’s all-time scoring list. Walter Offutt added 18 points (5-9 from deep) and Nick Kellogg chipped in 15, but the trio received little help from their frontcourt mates.
“We have to have more competition up front, and guys got to start being consistent up front…that really hurt us tonight,” said Christian.
Christian was likely referring to senior forwards Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely, who combined for just eight points and nine turnovers. Baltic did dish out a career-high nine assists and added 10 rebounds, but it’s clear the Bobcats are relying too heavily on their perimeter play. But it wasn’t just their lack of scoring inside that hurt the Bobcats.
Ohio did not have an answer for Morgan or the rest of the Minutemen’s offense.
UMass was ranked 300th nationally, shooting a dreadful 39.4 percent from the field, including a 28.7 percent (307th) from long distance, but shot 48 percent from the field and hit on 9-24 attempts from deep (37.5 percent) in this contest.
It wasn’t all bad however. Ohio stormed out to a 13-4 lead after Offutt, Cooper and Kellogg hit consecutive threes and Offutt added a fourth to give Ohio an 18-6 lead just five minutes in. But UMass responded with a 23-1 run, keyed by Morgan’s incredible shooting. A technical foul on Cooper helped kick-start the run before Morgan got hot.
He scored six points to cut the lead in half and minutes later, hit a jumper to give UMass a 21-19 advantage, a lead they would never relinquish. Morgan sank three free throws after Kellogg fouled him shooting a three before the 6’5” junior guard from Philadelphia caught fire. He knocked down three consecutive bombs to stretch Massachusetts’ lead to 35-24, their largest of the half.
Offutt did his best to match Morgan, hitting four first-half threes as the Bobcats cut the lead to three before UMass closed the half on an 8-3 run to take a 48-40 lead at the break.
Ohio didn’t help their cause by committing 12 turnovers in the first half alone, just two below their season average of 13.8.
Ohio again came out of the locker room hot, tying the game at 55 on a Kadeem Green baby hook shot with 14:26 remaining. But that’s when Morgan decided it was time to take over again, hitting three more treys during a decisive 11-0 run.
But as they did all night, the Bobcats clawed back and four quick points from Kellogg brought Ohio to within six, 78-72 with four minutes left.
The Bobcats had a chance to get closer, but Offutt was careless with a dribble handoff and the ball bounced to half court where Maxie Esho picked it up and coasted in for a powerful one-hand slam. UMass knocked down enough free throws from there to pick up their third straight victory, while the Bobcats fell to 0-3 on the road.
After a promising 6-0 start (four of which were by 20 points or more), the Bobcats are in a rut, having lost four of their last five.
"We just have to put it all together where everyone’s playing together at the same time," said head coach Jim Christian during his post-game radio interview.
One positive sign was the play from Green. The sophomore forward, who transferred from Missouri last spring, played 12 minutes in his second game and scored eight points on 4-5 shooting.
"I thought he played well, which is good because he’s another guy that can compete,” said Christian on Green’s performance.
Even though Ohio has not been themselves over the past five games, Christian is not panicking…yet.
"We’ll be fine. We made strides tonight. We have to get a couple guys out of the (slump) that they’re in."
The Bobcats will look to right the ship against Maryland-Eastern Shore (0-10) on Saturday at the Convocation Center.
Notes: UMass was 24-35 from the foul line while Ohio was 6-10…After playing 622 minutes spanning 20 games, Baltic finally got to the free-throw line with 13:56 remaining. He proceeded to miss both attempts and still hasn’t made a free throw since February 22...For the third straight game, Jon Smith played 13 minutes or less and did not see the floor in the second half until the 4:58 mark.