These Minutemen have a flair for the dramatic.
For the second time in as many games, the Massachusetts basketball team launched a double-digit second-half comeback on Sunday, erasing a 16-point deficit to top Saint Joseph’s 72-69.
UMass (10-8, 3-2 Atlantic 10) went to the locker room at halftime down 37-25, and needed 20 second-half points from Luwane Pipkins and some tough defense down the stretch to lock up its third consecutive conference win.
“We got to find a way to get off to better starts,” Minutemen coach Matt McCall said of his team’s flat start. “I told our guys at the half, we have got to create energy amongst each other. I thought our energy, our effort was completely dictated on whether or not the ball was going in the basket.”
Pipkins, fresh off a program-record 44-point performance on Wednesday, rose to the occasion. The sophomore guard finished with 27 points, seeing the Hawks (7-9, 2-3 A-10) refusal to give him space to shoot and raising them with repeated drives to the basket, finishing at the rim time and time again.
“I thought [Pipkins] was settling too much in the first half,” McCall said. “Go by him, use your quickness now. Listen, this is Luwane’s second year of college basketball; as terrific as he is, he’s still learning, he’s still growing. But I wanted him to go into the lane more.”
Pipkins played a starring role in a 15-3 second-half run that flipped a seven-point deficit into a five-point lead, reviving the Mullins crowd and the UMass bench.
“I had to make some adjustments in the second half,” said Pipkins. “I started driving because there were big guards on me, they couldn’t stay in front of me. Once I kept driving, either I’d drive and make a layup or drive and find my teammates.”
Pipkins also had six assists, as his penetration often produced opportunities for his teammates—freshman Carl Pierre continued his breakout campaign with 17 points on 5-7 shooting from three-point range, while C.J. Anderson added 12 points along with four rebounds and four assists.
On the other end, the Minutemen were forced to try and contain guard Shavar Newkirk, who joint-led St. Joe’s with 22 points. He only had eight in the second half, however, as UMass ran him all over the floor to siphon his gas tank and keep him in check.
“I thought our guys did a good job,” McCall said. “Newkirk is such a terrific player, he can score in so many different ways. He played 38 minutes in the game, I think we wore him down a little bit, shots that he normally makes [he missed], maybe he got a little tired late in the game. We wanted to pick him up full court there, and make him have to work, just because he’s such a terrific player.”
The win leaves the Minutemen in one of their best stretches of the season thus far, following an 0-2 start to the conference schedule with three big wins to improve to 3-2 in the A-10. McCall and his team now have plenty of momentum to take on conference-leaders Rhode Island on Wednesday, the toughest test of the conference slate.
“I feel like we’re just starting to gel right now,” Pipkins said. “We just got to keep working. We haven’t even played some of the toughest teams in the conference yet, so we just got to hit the lab hard, stay focused, and keep doing what we’ve been doing, stay together.”
Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.