Pipkins-Holloway connection the key to UMass’ meeting with Harvard

Pair averaging a combined 28.5 points

By Amin Touri, Sports Editor

When Harvard comes to the Mullins Center on Tuesday night, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker will be without his two best players.

With star guard Bryce Aiken and reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns both out indefinitely with knee injuries and not expected to play Tuesday, the roles of two of Matt McCall’s best players — Luwane Pipkins and Rashaan Holloway — become all the more important.

Even without Towns, Holloway will still have his hands full with Chris Lewis — a First Team All-Ivy selection last season — for whom McCall had plenty of praise.

“Chris Lewis is arguably the best front court player we are going to play all year,” McCall said. “He’s capable of having huge nights on both ends of the floor. He’s so physical, so big, strong, jump hooks with his left and right hand, blocks shots, he does everything. We have to make sure we do a good job on him.”

Even without his natural foil, Aiken — who dropped 30 points in a 70-67 Harvard win last November, including a buzzer-beating three to win it in overtime — Pipkins is pumped for Tuesday’s matchup.

“I’m still going to play my game, regardless of if he’s there or not,” Pipkins said. “He’s a good player, I respect his game a lot but my team and I are on a mission and we’re coming to win.

“Yeah they got us last year at the buzzer. We’re going to let that play out tomorrow. We’ll see.”

Pipkins and Holloway are an exercise in contrasts, as they’re the smallest and biggest of the Minutemen, respectively, but their court chemistry is as important as any UMass pairing. When Holloway’s as dominant as he was against UNH on Friday, Pipkins’ role as facilitator grows — four of Pipkins’ assists were to Holloway down low, accounting for nearly half of the big man’s buckets.

“We never lost the connection, on or off the court,” Pipkins said. “That’s still my boy, I still talked to him when he wasn’t playing, I just told him to play his game when he comes back. Stay in shape, stay healthy and just do what you got to do for the team to win.”

The Minutemen just didn’t have an option like Holloway last season, and Pipkins didn’t have a low-post threat to look to — now he does.

“It’s a big difference,” Pipkins said. “When he’s out there, I’m looking. We’ve just got to find him, make him a threat early, so teams can feel his presence down there. So if he’s hungry, if he’s eating like that, we’ve just got to keep feeding him, so I’m looking to do that more and I’ll do that again [Tuesday].”

McCall was especially impressed on Friday, as Pipkins came off screens at the top of the key and looked down low on multiple occasions, rather than trying to find his own shot.

“I was proud just watching our team tonight from the bench,” McCall said Friday, “and seeing how well [Holloway] was playing, and we’re running some screening actions to free up [Pipkins], and a lot of times [Pipkins] comes off those and he cranks.

“Not a bad shot, I mean he shoots over 40 percent from three, but he was really trying to get it into [Holloway] as he got it going in the first half and to me that shows growth from our basketball team.”

The relationship is symbiotic — as teams have to close out Pipkins on the perimeter because of his lethal shooting, Holloway finds opportunities like he did Friday. On the flip side, when teams are forced to respect Holloway’s dominance down low and collapse into the paint, shooters like Pipkins are left open.

“That’s a connection we always had,” Holloway said. “Of course when I couldn’t play, he had to take matters into his own hands. But we always had that connection — he’s always on me, he’s kinda like the little brother making sure the big brother’s on his toes all the time.

“Me and Pip got great chemistry on the court together, and it’s going to be fun to watch this year.”

Even sans Aiken and Towns, the Crimson are a strong team not to be taken lightly. Pipkins called them “a good, fundamental team. They run their sets really well, they’re disciplined on defense, a team that’s not going to make too many mistakes.”

Chris Lewis is still going to be a problem, and defensively, the game plan starts with stopping him.

Offensively, however, it all starts with the little guy with the hot hand, and the big man down low.


Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.