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Matt Vautour: Will Providence win be a high point or springboard?

  • UMass coach Matt McCall, center, directs players against Providence, Saturday at the Mullins Center in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF / Sarah Crosby



@MattVautourDHG
Saturday, December 09, 2017

AMHERST

The real test for the UMass men’s basketball team comes now.

Saturday’s 72-63 win over Providence was the best victory of the Matt McCall era and that’s certainly something to be enthusiastic about. The disappointing loss to Quinnipiac seemed like much more than 11 days ago as the Minutemen basked in appreciative applause of the 4,015 fans when they walked off the Mullins Center court.

But it’s dangerous to assign too much to the victory too fast. UMass stunned a very good Dayton team on Jan. 11 last season to end a three-game losing streak. At the time that game looked like a springboard to something bigger, a sign of a young team figuring it out. But the Minutemen didn’t handle success well. They lost six of their next seven games and never really got back on track.

Saturday’s win has a similar glow to it. Can beating the Friars mean more than the Flyers? There are reasons to be optimistic. The Minutemen absorbed the gut punch and had an answer. Things came a little too easily at times in the first half. Luwane Pipkins had one of his signature hot streaks and took everyone along for the ride with 22 points before intermission.

But when Providence corralled him early in the second half, it looked like UMass might wilt. Instead, the Minutemen counterpunched and stunned the favored Friars.

“These guys thought they’re going to run all over us. They thought it’s going to be an easy game. You could see it out there,” senior C.J. Anderson said. “They were trying to push us out there. My team wasn’t having it. It was as simple as that. We came into this game really hyped to play. Everybody was really playing together. We have to treat every game like it’s a championship game, like that team is coming in every night.”

UMass won the game in the second half without shooting 3-pointers well. When outside shots are falling, everything the Minutemen do seems more in sync. They guard better. Move the ball better. Communicate better.

But in the second half, UMass didn’t make any 3s and it was still effective doing each of those other things.

Chris Baldwin seems to be back in McCall’s good graces after being benched at South Carolina. McCall praised his approach in the postgame and said that every player had the right attitude and focus. When Baldwin is right, his inside-outside versatility is valuable and it certainly was down the stretch.

UMass’ games against Harvard, South Carolina and BYU were similarly as winnable as this one, but the Minutemen weren’t able to finish. Was Saturday the sign of a lesson learned or an aberration? Time will tell if this game is a ladder rung for a team on the way up or the high point of a season filled with growing pains.

Pipkins was at least saying the right things.

“The game is in the past. We have to look at our next opponent and prepare for them,” he said. “We have to focus on the next opponent coming in and prepare the same way.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage