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UMass to face tough test with Niagara backcourt

(Jessica Picard/ Daily Collegian)

After splitting its first two games of the season, the Massachusetts men’s basketball team will look to add another tally to the win column as they take on Niagara in Amherst on Sunday.

The Minutemen are coming off an overtime thriller against Harvard, where UMass fell just short of victory. Guard Luwane Pipkins put on a show, hitting a three pointer to send the game to overtime, then hit a game tying shot late in overtime. He would finish the game with 23 points.

If Pipkins can keep the momentum gained a week ago, the matchup with the Purple Eagles will put him up against guard Kahlil Dukes. The graduate transfer from Southern California is averaging 24.5 points per game through the teams first two games.

“We know he shoots a lot of deep threes,” Pipkins said of Dukes. “We have to change our point of pickup, instead of the three-point line we have to pick him up at half court. We can’t let him get any rhythm threes out. Just talk, play as a team and do what we have to do.”

UMass coach Matt McCall has high praise for Dukes, he knows that Niagara has other options, including guard Matt Scott who is averaging just under 20 points a game.

“Terrific, fearless,” McCall said of Dukes. “Completely got them back in the game last night, I think he had 15 or 18 points in the second half. I think teams get a little caught up with them on their offense and how electric they are offensively, which they are, but they’re an extremely hard playing basketball team.”

“It’s not just (Dukes),” McCall continued. “It’s Scott too. When you have two guys averaging over 20 points a game, they’ve done it for two years, they’re a dangerous team. Their bench hasn’t played as much as their starters, we have to be mindful of style of play. The game is going to be chaotic, from how they want to play on offense and how fast they want to play. This is an opportunity for a big step forward for our program is we’re able to find a way to win the game.”

While Pipkins is ready for the challenge of going up against a talented back court, he understands he has to focus on himself and play his own game.

“I just live for the moment. I go into every game just trying to play my game and not focus on the other guy. Just play defense as much as I can. He’s a good player so I have to come in with my A game, stay focused and do what I do.”

If UMass wants to come out with a victory, they will have to shoot better from deep. The Minutemen have struggled from behind the three-point line, shooting just 6-of-27 from deep on the season.

One guy who can hit shots from outside is Carl Pierre. The freshmen is averaging 16 minutes through the first two games, but those minutes should expect to rise.

“We got to find a way to stick Carl (Pierre) out there more,” McCall said. “I need him to get more reps, more game experience. With our lack of shooting right now, he’s a guy who can put the ball through the net. We have to find a way to get him out there more. His ability to stretch the defense, you’re going to want him out there.”

When a team struggles with outside shooting, they typically have good offensive rebounding numbers due to rebounds coming off the rim in funky ways, but that hasn’t been the case for UMass, who has 16 offensive boards on the year.

“Our offensive numbers are not great, especially shooting beyond the three-point line. To combat that, we should be one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Through two games, we’re not. We have to get better there.”

Tip off is set for noon on Sunday at the Mullins Center.

Thomas Johnston can be reached at tjohnston@umass.edu and followed on twitter @TJ__Johnston.

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