UMass basketball: Last-second George Mason foul helps Minutemen pull off 66-65 victory

UMass freshman Jayden Ndjigue (11) celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer in the second half of the Minutemen’s 66-65 victory over George Mason on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass freshman Jayden Ndjigue (11) celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer in the second half of the Minutemen’s 66-65 victory over George Mason on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

The UMass bench celebrates in the second half of the Minutemen’s 66-65 victory over George Mason on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

The UMass bench celebrates in the second half of the Minutemen’s 66-65 victory over George Mason on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

UMass freshman Jaylen Curry (2) goes to the basket during the Minutemen’s 66-65 victory over George Mason on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass freshman Jaylen Curry (2) goes to the basket during the Minutemen’s 66-65 victory over George Mason on Saturday afternoon at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-03-2024 4:55 PM

Modified: 02-03-2024 11:51 PM


AMHERST — Hanging on desperately to a two-point lead in the final minute against George Mason, the UMass men’s basketball team needed one stop to secure its second consecutive Atlantic 10 victory for the first time this season.

The Minutemen forced the Patriots into a missed 3-pointer with 10 seconds left, and a fight for the rebound ensued. A total of five bodies between the two teams sprawled on the floor, and George Mason guard Ronald Polite III collected it near half court while on his stomach and tossed it to Baraka Okojie – who raced to the hoop for a game-tying layup.

Rahsool Diggins received the inbound pass from Daniel Hankins-Sanford and turned to let loose a heave. Mistakenly, Patriots forward Keyshawn Hall fouled Diggins with 0.8 seconds on the clock.

After officials went to the monitor and confirmed the foul, Diggins stepped to the line and drilled the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second. A last-second baseball toss went wide right for George Mason, and UMass managed a massive 66-65 conference win on Saturday afternoon in front of a season-high 4,418 fans at the Mullins Center.

“I was confused,” Diggins said of his initial thoughts after being fouled. “I yelled for the ball to heave it up, so when I took a dribble and I turned around, he grabbed me. I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ I didn’t think they were gonna call it and give it to us, but thank god they did.”

A pair of Woody Newton 3s put Mason (15-7, 4-5 A-10) ahead 55-50 with 5:52 remaining in the second half. UMass head coach Frank Martin called timeout to talk things over. Out of the timeout, the Minutemen erupted on a 12-1 run – capped off by back-to-back long balls from Jayden Ndjigue and Diggins – to storm ahead by six.

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But the theme that UMass struggles to close out games continues to build, as Hall went on a solo 5-0 run to close the gap to 64-63. Ndjigue made one free throw prior to the aforementioned final moments transpiring.

This time, the Minutemen (14-7, 5-4 A-10) were on the right side of a nail-biter.

“I’m standing there on the sideline watching that loose ball, and guys diving, our guy, their guy, our guy, their guy, but the ball – nobody comes up with it,” Martin said. “All I can think of is, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me, man.’ As soon as I saw the ball in [Okojie’s] hands, and I see all our guys sprawled on the floor, I [knew they were going to score]. Fluke play. Both ways. I feel bad for [Hall]. I’m sure he’s frustrated that he committed that mistake.”

Saturday’s game was a classic example of an Atlantic 10 rock fight – low-scoring, defensive-focused and right down to the wire. There never seems to be any easy wins on a nightly basis, and Patriots head coach Tony Skinn echoed that sentiment.

He also stated that UMass stands out compared to the rest of the teams in the conference.

“This is one of those tough ones,” Skinn said. “In my opinion, since I’ve been in this league for about four or five months now, this is your typical A-10 finish. This was as physical of a game as we played all season long... There can't be a more tougher team [in the Atlantic 10] than UMass.”

A lot of that toughness was displayed on the glass. UMass out-rebounded George Mason 40-26, including an 18-10 advantage on the offensive end. The way Martin likes to run his offense, the Minutemen should always have two players around the basket to clean up a missed shot.

That certainly helps, but so does simply wanting the ball more than the opponent.

“Our coaches are very big on crashing the glass and getting second-chance opportunities for the rest of our team,” Ndjigue, who had six rebounds, said. “We haven’t gone a day where they haven’t made that a priority. As we continue to stack days over time, it’s just become a habit for everybody in the frontcourt [to rebound]. We’ve shown that when we rebound at a high level, good things happen for our team.”

Coming into Saturday, UMass averaged 81.4 points per game – the most in the A-10. But going into halftime, the Minutemen only had 26 points, and they turned the ball over 11 times which led to 13 points on the other end for the Patriots. They turned it around with five of their seven 3s in the second half to go along with only six turnovers. UMass’ 40 points over the final 20 minutes were enough to squeeze out the win.

Josh Cohen once again led UMass with 17 points while adding six boards, Diggins finished with 14 behind four made 3s, Keon Thompson (12 points, three assists) turned in another solid game and Ndjigue stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, six rebounds and five assists. Matt Cross chipped in nine points (all in the second half) and nine rebounds.

“We played with a greater purpose on offense in the second half,” Martin said. “We actually got the ball in the interior, and we played inside-out. Our bigs played with a purpose in there.”

UMass travels to St. Bonaventure on Wednesday night at 7 p.m., with the game available for streaming in the NBC Sports app. A win would put the Minutemen right in the mix for a chance to receive a double bye in the Atlantic 10 tournament.