UMass digs out, gets back on track

For many New Englanders, a snowy winter day means hunkering in and enjoying the comforts of home. With a fresh foot of the white stuff piled up outside, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team was just fine with settling in to the Mullins Center, a place they've found to be very cozy this season.

The Minutemen improved to 9-0 at home on Wednesday, snapping a two-game losing streak with a decisive 79-67 win over La Salle before 4,345 hardy souls.

Playing its first game since a 10-week run in the top 25 came to an end, UMass improved to 18-4 and 5-3 in the Atlantic 10 with a win that was just as important for the team's psyche as it was in the standings. The Minutemen, who climbed as high as No. 13 in the AP poll two weeks ago, had lost three of four, all on the road. Another defeat, particularly at home, would have taken much of the wind from their sails.

La Salle (12-10, 4-4) came in with some measure of desperation as well. With most of the key pieces from last season's Sweet 16 team back, the Explorers have been very inconsistent. Time's a-wastin' for them to capture their preseason promise.

The Minutemen immediately transferred their urgency to their play on the floor. Derrick Gordon came up with a steal on the game's first possession and fed Raphiael Putney for a transition dunk.

Indeed UMass' effort on defense was the most pleasing aspect of the game for coach Derek Kellogg on a night his team shot 53 percent from the floor.

"I thought our defense was really good tonight," Kellogg said in his postgame radio interview. "We got right up and pressured the ball, I thought our rotations were great. It was a good 40-minute performance for us and hopefully we can use that as a building block to continue that and make it the way we play every game."

Kellogg said his team had a pair of good practices on the heels of its two road losses -- "old-school, defensive, tough-guy practices" -- which is the type of play that is the foundation of what he calls "UMass basketball," the style his teams also played when he was the point guard during the program's heyday.

"When we play better defense, that allows our offense to get moving a little faster," Kellogg said.

With forward/sixth man Maxie Esho out with concussion-like symptoms, Kellogg emphasized a three-guard lineup, which matched up well with La Salle's smallish roster. The trio of Gordon, Chaz Williams and Trey Davis combined to go 12-for-17 in the first half for 30 points.

Williams (17 points, 8 assists) and Davis keyed a 10-0 run -- Williams assisted two Davis 3-pointers with a weaving transition layup of his own sandwiched between -- that gave UMass a 38-21 lead with 3:14 to go.

Davis (13 points, 3-for-3 beyond the arc) banked in a shot just before the buzzer to give the Minutemen a 43-27 lead at the break. UMass essentially held serve from there as La Salle never got within sniffing distance.

"We don't like losing," said Gordon, who finished with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting, 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks. "We had two intense practices after the St. Joe's game. I knew with our energy coming into this game we were all going to leave it on the court and were going to put on a show."

Gordon said the backcourt trio was intent on coming out with some fire.

"Me, Chaz and Trey, we talk a lot and all three of us came together and we told each other that when we're out there we need to keep our foot on the gas pedal," he said. "I think that's what we lacked the past few games. We were holding back and were kind of relaxed and tried to come back in the end. But from here on out, from the get-go we're going to put it on teams and leave it all out there."

Even without Esho, the UMass frontcourt also played well, with Putney (11 rebounds, five blocks) in particular making life difficult for La Salle down low. The Minutemen outscored the Explorers 20-8 in the paint in the first half. UMass also made a point of feeding Cady Lalanne in the post in the second half; he finished with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting and his aggressiveness, which has been lacking of late, was another encouraging sign.

Feeling warm and fuzzy at home is all well and good, but the Minutemen will have to win on the road as well to achieve the potential they showed early this season. At the midpoint of the A-10 season, they are 5-3, the same record as Richmond and St. Joseph's, teams that beat UMass in its recent road skid.

Working in the Minutemen's favor is that their lone games against league leaders St. Louis and VCU are at the Mullins Center. Their remaining road games are at third-place George Washington, Dayton (never a picnic), and a pair of second-division teams, Rhode Island and Duquesne -- although Kellogg was quick to point out that URI, Sunday's opponent, lost to St. Louis by 1 and beat Dayton by 12 at home.

"Sometimes on the road, we kind of lack focus and kind of wait until the last minute to come back," Gordon said. "But I believe everybody's of the same mindset that we need to come out at the jump and play all out."