AMHERST, Mass. -- Despite a 5-3 record and a season's worth of heart-stopping victories, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team really hadn't found its rhythm entering Wednesday night's game at the Mullins Center against Ohio.
But on Wednesday, junior guard Jesse Morgan hit a groove that would make salsa-dancing UMass alum Victor Cruz jealous.
Morgan erupted for 35 points and sparked a 23-1 first-half run that paced UMass (6-3) to its best outing of the season, an 85-76 win over the Bobcats (7-4).
Morgan's outburst came on 12-of-18 shooting, 7-of-10 from beyond the arc. He came within 3 points of the school record at the Mullins Center set by Marcus Camby in 1996. Morgan's previous career high was 25 points last season.
"I've seen him do that before, but to see him do that in a college game was really kind of uplifting for the team, I think uplifting for the fans," UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. "And as a coach, when he's rising up and you think it's going in, instead of praying it goes in, I felt really confident."
Save for Sampson Carter's uncontested layup off the opening tip, the Minutemen came out disjointed on both ends of the court, with Ohio taking an 18-6 lead after a UMass turnover and a breakaway layup by D.J. Cooper with 15:19 remaining. At that point, the Bobcats were 6-of-8 from the floor, the Minutemen 2-of-7. That would change in a heartbeat.
Out of the break, the trio of Cady Lalanne, Maxie Esho and Freddie Riley entered the game and helped provide the energy and spark the Minutemen were lacking. Add in some unconscious shooting by Morgan, and UMass had found its formula for success.
Lalanne and Esho took control of the paint under the UMass hoop and started cleaning up the glass, which was a problem in the early going. Offense? That was Morgan's department.
The junior from Philadelphia was coming off his worst game of the season, and one of the worst of his career, hitting just 1 of 9 shots in a 78-73 overtime win over Elon on Saturday. In fact, Morgan has had trouble finding his stroke much of the season. In his previous six games, he was just 25-for-81 from the field (31 percent) and 14-for-37 (38 percent) from behind the arc. Take out a 7-for-14 game against Northeastern on Dec. 4 and the numbers fall to 27 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep.
But Morgan has shown in the past he can heat up in an instant. Morgan's outburst in the first half Wednesday was a certified bonfire. Morgan fueled the 23-1 run, scoring 16 points, that exhibited the promise UMass has fulfilled only sporadically to this point in the season.
In a flash, the 18-6 deficit was a 29-19 lead, with Morgan doing much of the damage from 3-point land. He finished the half with 22 points and was 4-for-4 on 3-balls, and UMass led 48-40.
After Ohio erased the Minutemen's lead in the first five minutes of the second half, Morgan had another outburst, immediately answering with the first of his three 3-pointers as part of a 13-2 spurt that put UMass in control for good.
Morgan said he was firing away from his "in-the-gym range." "After a while I just black out," he said. "Shots just fall."
But Morgan's night started with an emphasis on defense, as he was the primary defender on Cooper, Ohio's leading scorer and floor general.
Morgan said the assignment helped him get in the flow of the game.
"Coach was talking about what a good player he is so I want to step up and take on the challenge. I didn't visualize this," Morgan said, referring to his career night offensively. "I visualized that I was going to play defense and play well."
While it's hard to look past a night like Morgan's, we all know that 3-point shots can come and go. More encouraging for the long-range hopes of the Minutemen was the performance of Lalanne, who asserted himself in particular on the offensive glass and showed the energy UMass will need from him.
"I thought he played a really good game," Kellogg said of the 6-foot-9 Lalanne. "Defensively he took up a lot of space and those offensive-rebound putbacks are huge."
Lalanne finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds (5 offensive) in 23 minutes, and came up big defensively at key stretches.
It was Lalanne's second game after serving a 12-day suspension, missing one game, after his Dec. 1 arrest for disorderly conduct at an on-campus event. Since a solid outing in the season opener against Harvard, Lalanne's impact had been limited, averaging 4.3 points and 4 rebounds in less than 20 minutes per game.
Lalanne said he used the time off to get his legs stronger and get his wind up.
"I'm feeling a lot better," he said. "Coach has said to bring energy so that's what I'm trying to do."