As Fordham and UMass lined up to begin their Tuesday Night matchup in the Bronx, the attention of the arena was focused on something larger than basketball. Before the Fordham Band played the National Anthem, the Rose Hill PA announcer first asked those in attendance to participate in a moment of silence in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. With a Ukranian flag hung above the Fordham bench, as well as stitched onto the uniform of each Fordham uniform, the Rams showed their support for Ukraine, as well as their teammate and Kyiv native Rostyslav Novitskyi.
While the team had made their support known via social media last Thursday, the added patches and flags were not added until this most recent home game. According to Head Coach Kyle Neptune, while patches and moments of silence can’t solve what’s going in Ukraine, supporting Novitskyi was a top priority for this team.
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do or say to make it better,” Neptune said. “We just try to be there for him as much as possible, but I don’t think there could be any soothing words that would help him forget about what’s going on.”
As the game got under way, Fordham and UMass matched up well in terms of size, with Fordham appearing to have the slightest advantage over Trent Buttrick with Chuba Ohams and Abdou Tsimbila. As UMass struggled to hits threes in the first half, and Fordham avoided them almost entirely, the Rams’ advantage in the paint was what largely drove their early offensive identity. Ohams and Tsimbila were pretty much always ready to snag an offensive rebound and keep plays alive, as the pair combined for five offensive boards in the first half. Ball movement was impeccable in the paint as well, as Antrell Charlton contributed 3 of the Rams 6 first half assists. In their sixth game together, Fordham’s current starting lineup was playing their best offense yet.
Of course, this offense would once again have to make a slight adjustment, as for the first time since January 8th, Darius Quisenberry checked into the game just before the under-16 media timeout. Fordham’s most prolific scorer this season, Quisenberry had been sidelined for six games with a knee injury. Coming off the bench for the first time since Fordham’s win over Akron in November, Quisenberry looked as healthy as ever. Despite just four points by halftime, Quisenberry was more than eager to make strong cuts, man the press, and defend hard.
While Quisenberry’s presence could have forced a shift back to the four-guard style we saw in the first half of the season, Coach Neptune praised the Junior Guard’s willingness to take his time and learn how to adapt his playing style to the new gameplan. Considering the fact that his injury affected both his ability to play and his ability to practice, Quisenberry understands that his role in Fordham’s last two regular season games may be more complimentary.
“He knew everything we were doing, he was locked in on the sidelines, knew all the new plays,” Neptune explained. “For not playing for a month he was unbelievable. Obviously, he has a little cobwebs, but we don’t have to worry about that with him. It would be really easy for him to come back and make it all about him, but he allowed our other guys to be good tonight as he’s working his way back.”
As the first half trudged along, Fordham and UMass traded some major plays in the paint. While Ohams and Tsimbila had established a pretty firm grip under the basket, UMass’ Michael Steadman held his own, notching 7 points before the break. Rich Kelly, a solid A-10 shooter with stock quickly rising, went 3-4 from the field.
As UMass continued to push, Fordham had to diversify their responses. Reaching into the rotation, it was Fordham’s second big of Patrick Kelly and Rostyslav Novitskyi that helped take a small lead just before halftime. With two consecutive three pointers, Kelly and Novitskyi had the Rams up 29-26, erasing UMass’ last lead of the game. Each time Novitskyi was part of a huge play, the entire Rose Hill Gym erupted in support. Novitskyi would score 7 points in the first half, finishing with a career high of 10.
Entering the second half up 40-36, Fordham continued to press, this time from deep. After the Minutemen tied the game at 40, Chuba Ohams kicked the ball out on two consecutive plays to assist Josh Colon-Navarro and Antrell Charlton on clutch three pointers. In the second half, Fordham would go 6-7 from behind the three point line.
With this sharpshooting, Fordham had amassed a 15 point lead, their largest of the game. With a dunk that sent the Rose Hill Gym back to their feet, Chuba Ohams scored Fordham’s 70th point, the first time they’d hit that mark since January 18th. A few minutes later, they would cross the 80 point threshold for the first time since their 89-83 win over Central Connecticut, exactly three months ago. Once Ohams had crossed the double double threshold for the sixth consecutive game, the student section erupted into chants of “Chu-ba! Chu-ba! Chu-ba!”
“No secret for us man, he’s been our heart and soul all year,” Neptune said. “What he’s been doing stats wise is unbelievable, but more importantly, I think off the court, him as a leader and an elder statesman of our bunch has been important for us.”
Ohams would finish with a career high 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists. Including Ohams, three Fordham players finished the night scoring in double digits, while six would hit at least one three. In their highest scoring win of the season, Fordham had taken down UMass 85-73.
With the win, Fordham improves to 7-9 in conference play, enough for sole current possession of the ninth seed in the A-10. They’ll finish their regular season series with UMass on Wednesday night in Amherst.