PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Curtis Cobb stopped in his strides at midcourt to let out a scream before turning around and running back to the UMass bench.
The redshirt junior was releasing the enthusiasm and energy that was coursing through the Minutemen when Providence called a timeout after a 3-pointer from Carl Pierre. It was the sophomore’s third triple in the last 65 seconds, a 9-1 run that brought UMass to within single digits for the first time in the second half.
In the euphoria of that moment, Pierre said it became obvious to everyone on the visitor’s bench at the Dunkin Donuts Center on Friday that UMass would overcome its 18-point halftime deficit. The 79-78 final was the logical conclusion to all the momentum swelling in the Minutemen’s corner.
“The whole second half we had a higher level of energy than we had in the first half,” Pierre said. “That stretch really took us over the top. In our minds, once we hit that stretch, there was not a chance we’re going to lose that game, we were going to do whatever we needed to do to come out with a W.”
For much of the first 30 minutes, the pressure of keeping UMass (6-4) in the game fell on the shoulders of Luwane Pipkins. The junior guard scored 22 of his game-high 26 points in that stretch, contributing half of UMass’ points to just keep the Minutemen within striking distance. Although he couldn’t get a shot to fall from the perimeter, Pipkins just drove the lane and found ways to will home difficult shots in traffic, banking numerous runners and floaters off the backboard to score.
But the Friars (7-3) eventually started to take away Pipkins’ space to drive, and that was when the offense opened up for the rest of his teammates. Pierre scored all 15 of his points in the final 10 minutes of the contest, hitting 5-of-6 from long-range. Cobb scored seven of his 16 points in that stretch, too, as Pipkins dished out all five of his assists in the second half.
“As the game was going the wrong way, Pip, because of the competitor he is, tries to get it back and do it himself,” coach Matt McCall said. “I thought in the second half, it was the opposite. He was slicing the floor, he was finding Carl and finding Curtis. He did a great job trying to find those guys and get them shots and really run our team.”
But when UMass needed to make a basket to win the game, there was never any doubt who was going to take the shot. After Pipkins secured a defensive rebound off a Nate Watson miss, he dribbled over half court and called timeout with 26 seconds left.
Out of the timeout, Pipkins found himself with the ball at the top of the arc and drove to his right, blowing past his defender for an easy layup with 10.7 seconds left.
UMass then came up with its most important defensive stop as Rashaan Holloway and Samba Diallo combined to crowd Alpha Diallo and force a missed shot that Holloway grabbed to run out the clock.
“I couldn’t be prouder of these guys,” McCall said. “The effort that was put out there on the floor in the second half was the best that this team has played since I was the coach here.”
After a lopsided first half in which Providence shot 54.5 percent from the floor and scored 50 points, UMass came out with a renewed defensive focus in the final 20 minutes. The open shots the Friars relied upon to build their early lead became contested and Providence was forced to grind and slog its way to points.
In particular, the Minutemen kept the Friars off the 3-point arc, where Providence had burned UMass for 9 of 13 shooting in the opening half. The Friars only took three 3-point shots in the second half as the Minutemen flew around better defensively and closed down shooting space.
“They were killing us on the 3-point line in the first half and we did a good job of stopping them from getting the wide open looks they were getting in the first half,” Pierre said. “It was just effort and energy.”
McCall said he was most proud of how well his players talked to each other on defense in the second half in a raucous arena. As the fans grew louder to urge the Friars over the finish line, the Minutemen were more isolated from their coaches at the other end of the floor. In that moment, McCall said, his players continued to preach communication during the timeouts and it was evident they kept up that talk on the floor on defense.
“In that building and in that environment, that was the best job our players have done communicating all year,” McCall said. “They had to rely completely on each other communicating to get stops. You kept hearing them in the timeouts, Pip kept saying ‘We have to talk, we have to communicate.’”