The Albany Great Danes were still trying to shake a persistent flu bug that had decimated their roster on Saturday afternoon, but they had no problem ditching host UMass Lowell. Albany controlled the game from almost the opening tip, grabbed the lead at th17:02 mark in the first half and never looked back for a 64-51 road win over a River Hawks squad that entered the day 2-0 in league play.
“We wanted to treat this like a first place game,” said Albany basketball head coach Will Brown of his team’s win, which left the Great Danes alone with the University of Vermont as unbeatens in conference play. “We did our job to get ourselves to 3-0, now if you like the taste of 3-0, find a way to get the next one.”
The Danes were led by Evan Singletary, who finished the game with 21 points, 14 of those coming in the first half. Singletary was near automatic from the free throw line, hitting 9-of-10 freebies. Singletary’s season free throw percentage of an even 90 percent ranks 16th in the entire nation.
As the River Hawks began to focus more and more attention on Singletary as the game wore on, Peter Hooley and Sam Rowley took full advantage, each scoring nine points in the second half, to finish with 14 and 11, respectively. Rowley also tied a game-leading six rebounds with his brother, Mike. With his six rebounds, Sam Rowley passed Levi Levine (’06) for the programs Division I career record. Rowley finished the day with 613 career rebounds to Levine’s 610.
The Great Danes offensive attack was spurned by their defensive efforts, as the team held America East Rookie of the Year frontrunner and Lowell leading scorer Jahad Thomas to just 10 points, well below his season average, with all of Thomas’ scoring coming in the second half.
“It all started on the defensive end,” said Hooley. “Coach kept preaching throughout the game we had to get stops.”
The first half was back and forth between the two teams until the Great Danes broke out a 17-2 run towards the end of the period, extending their lead to as much as 18.
The Great Danes went into the half with a 33-22 lead, and started the second half right where they left off, hitting two 3-pointers early off the hands of Singletary and Ray Sanders. The River Hawks kept the fight going though the half, cutting the lead to as close as nine with furious runs of 8-2, 9-2 and then 9-2 later in the game, but the Danes answered every time.
UMass Lowell falls to 8-8 on the season and 2-1 in conference with the loss, while Albany extends their winning streak to three games, pushing their overall record to 8-7 and 3-0 in conference for the first time since the 2006-07 season. The win also marks Coach Will Brown’s 199th victory in his 14-year UAlbany career.
Albany next plays on Wednesday Jan. 14 at home against Binghamton at 7 p.m. on ESPN3. The River Hawks next play Tuesday Jan. 13 on the road at Maine at 7 p.m.
Late game heroics from freshman guards Jahad Thompson and Matt Harris secured a 73-61 River Hawks victory over UMBC.
True to expectations, this America East showdown was settled in overtime as UMass Lowell emerged the winner with clutch shooting and critical defensive stops. Harris led the River Hawks with a career high 17 points and Thomas pounded his way towards a team high 9 rebounds.
“This is a quality road win for us,” said UMass Lowell basketball head coach Pat Duquette. “I’m really happy for our guys.”
The River Hawks had plenty to celebrate as they snapped a one game losing streak, improved to 8-7 overall and touted an unblemished conference record of 2-0.
As two minutes remained in regulation, UMass Lowell trailed UMBC 60-56. With the game on the line, Thomas fearlessly powered his way to the paint and drew fouls. A 63 percent free throw shooter on the season, Thomas converted four consecutive free throws and tied the contest 60 all.
In the final five seconds of regulation, Thomas stripped and stole the ball from Retrievers guard Wayne Sparrow. Determined to make the game winning play, Thomas once again drove his way to the paint and attempted to sneak a lay-up over UMBC forward Devarick Houston.
But Houston, who was momentarily out of position managed to recover, and reposition himself under the basket to block Thomas’s potential game-winner.
During overtime, UMass Lowell orchestrated an excellent defensive effort, allowing just one point and forcing two pivotal UMBC turnovers.
“We just put the zone in over the last couple of weeks,” said Duquette. “They’ve done a great job understanding it.”
Freshman guard Lance Crawford struck first in the extra session and nailed a 3-pointer to put the River Hawks ahead 63-60. Crawford would score five points in the overtime period and closed the contest with six points. Four different UMass Lowell players would contribute points as the River Hawks exercised a 13-1 run. During overtime, the Retrievers leading scorer Wayne Sparrow was shut out.
In the first half, the River Hawks appeared to be flat and struggled to keep pace against the Retrievers. In particular, the UMass Lowell starters misfired shots and generated a modest 12 first half points. Thomas, the America East Conference Rookie of the week was shut out and so were three additional starters.
As the Retrievers looked to seize momentum, Duquette looked to his reserves. Throughout this season, the River Hawks reserves have answered the bell and averaged nearly 18 points per contest. As the starting lineup grappled against the Retrievers defense, the River Hawks leaned on their sharp-shooting freshman Brad Schaub. Schaub shot two for two from down town and his 11 points gave UMass Lowell to a 36-34 half-time lead.
“I’m pleased with the guys who came off the bench tonight,” said Duquette. “They were ready when we needed them and they helped us win the game.”
Just as they opened the first half, the River Hawks opened the second half committing turnovers and missing shots. Coming off the bench, sophomore Tyler Livingston nailed a 3-pointer that broke the tie and gave UMass Lowell a 39-36 advantage. Eight of Livingston’s 15 points came in the second half.
With 11:55 left in regulation, the River Hawks needed a spark and Harris provided a game-breaking 3-pointer that put UMass Lowell ahead 46-45. Three minutes later, Harrison scored his second consecutive 3-pointer that helped the River Hawks regain a 49-48 lead. The tandem of Livingston and Harris recorded a combined four second half 3-pointers. Overall, UMass Lowell outscored the Retrievers bench 51-1.
As the minutes faded, it was imperative for UMass Lowell to render forced turnovers and defensive stops. During the last five minutes of regulation, the River Hawks caused three turnovers and held the Retrievers scoreless.
Duquette praised his team and credits them for properly executing the zone defense.
“Tonight was the first time we played it [Zone defense] in a game,” said Duquette. “I thought that changed the whole rhythm, and allowed us to get back in it with five minutes left.”
Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell led the Seawolves to that ever-elusive signature win, helping the America East knock off its first ranked opponent since 2006. Jameel Warney is the unstoppable Juggernaut, and after years and years of stubbornly refusing to helieve the hype, Sam Perkins is finally buying into the Seawolves. All that and much, much more on this week’s edition of the OBW America East Power Rankings.
1. Stony Brook (9-6, 1-0 in AE)
Results: W 59-47 vs American; W 62-57 at #13 Washington; W 71-61 vs UNH (AE).
This Week: Tuesday at Columbia; Saturday at Vermont.
Remember all those years that I didn’t buy into the Seawolves ability to win the big one and I got absolutely raked across the coals by Stony Brook’s fan base only to come up smelling like roses in March? Welp, I’m officially buying in. I won’t quite say Stony Brook is going to The Big Dance yet, but I definitely think they are the favorite to finally win it all. Why? Two words: Jameel Warney. Plus two more: Supporting cast.
Simply put, this is Jameel Warney’s world and we are all just living in it. The 6’8” 260 pound bruiser continues to lead the nation in rebounds at 12.3 caroms per contest, leads the America East in scoring (15.4 ppg) and blocks (2.5 bpg). But what has truly taken Warney’s game to the next level is his uncanny passing ability. Since his freshman season, Warney has drawn double – and now triple, and occasionally quadruple – teams on the blocks, but his ability to consistently find the open man for easy buckets has made the Seawolves so much more dangerous. Junior forward Rayshawn McGrew is quietly having a terrific season playing beside Warney, and is cleaning up around the glass and scoring at a solid clip, Carson Puriefoy has been very solid creating off the dribble, and the Seawolves are getting timely contributions from across their roster.
Did we mention they knocked off 13th ranked Washington on the Huskies home court? Yep, these guys are the front-runners right now.
2. Vermont (5-8, 1-0 AE)
Results: L 64-56 at USC; L 64-57 at UC Santa Barbara
This week: Wednesday at Maine; Saturday vs Stony Brook.
If only the Catamounts were at full strength, who knows how good this team would be right now. How good is this team going to be in another year or two? Scary. But in the here and now, even with the majority of their talent still cutting their teeth at the Division I level, this team is really fun to watch and could definitely make some serious noise come conference tournament, err playoff time in March. Yes, it definitely needs to be said that Vermont has now lost four in a row, but they were against four very quality opponents and all games the Catamounts could have won had a few things gone differently. Vermont likes, no loves, to play in transition, with point guard Trae Bell-Haynes pushing the tempo, but the Catamounts’ true strength is their ability to pressure opponents back courts and run opponents off of the perimeter, with Bell-Haynes, Defensive Player of the Year favorite Dre Wills and Kurt Steidl harassing the bejesus out of opposing guards.
3. Albany (6-7)
Results: W 77-66 vs Fairfield; L 65-47 at Niagara; W 80-56 vs Maine
This Week: Tuesday at UNH; Saturday at UMass Lowell.
Make. Up. Your. **** Minds, Great Danes. C’mon now! Albany has certainly been a Jekyll and Hyde squad up until now, alternating runs of terrific basketball with bouts of absolutely brutal hoops. Albany beat a bad Fairfield squad by double-digits and killed Maine in its conference opener, both expected results, but they were sandwiched around an absolutely embarrassing 65-47 loss to a really bad Niagara squad. Yes star shooting guard Peter Hooley didn’t play due to the flu and low post stalwart Sam Rowley gave it a go but was also violently ill, but this is a team that still should have been good enough to mop the floor with the Purple Eagles in their absence. With Hooley, Rowley and JuCo Evan Singletary, along with a talented supporting cast, this remains a team with the talent to win it all, but they need to start putting it together night in and night out.
4. Hartford (7-7, 0-1 AE)
Results: L 87-60 at #14 Notre Dame; L 58-49 at Texas A & M
This Week: Wednesday vs Binghamton.
The Hawks have been solid as of late, but they still haven’t “wowed us” to date (in fact, what looked like their best win in a Dec. 9 shellacking of Holy Cross is now looking fairly ho-hum as the Crusaders have been tanking ever since). As we continue to say, when the Hawks are hitting their threes and Mark Nwakamma is on the court and getting consistent touches, Hartford can beat anyone. However, in the confines of an America East playoff, where teams have to win three straight games to go to The Big Dance, inevitably something is going to go wrong and they are going to need to find a way to win outside of playing their A Game — especially when said A Game relies so heavily on voluminous outside shooting. We’ll get excited when Hartford beats an America East contender when their shots aren’t falling. As for the Hawks, one big point of concern is their bench production, or lack thereof.
Still, there’s no denying that when they get hot, Hartford can – and most likely will – beat anyone in the league.
5. New Hampshire (6-7, 0-1 in AE)
Results: L 73-72 (OT) at LIU Brooklyn; L 70-56 at William & Mary; L 71-61 at Stony Brook (AE)
This Week: Tuesday vs Albany; Thursday vs Brown; Sunday at UMBC.
After the best start the program has seen since the 1990s, the Wildcats have hit a four game skid. Their offense likely won’t ever be pretty, and they are still struggling to find consistency scoring the ball, but after giving Stony Brook everything the Seawolves could handle, it is also apparent that this UNH team is going to be a thorn in the side of just about everyone in the league. New Hampshire is back to playing Bill Herrion basketball: rebounding, defending, scrapping and clawing for the entire length of the floor and turning the game into trench warfare on defense. But with sophomore point guard Daniel Dion making it rain from downtown and freshman forward Tanner Leissner scoring from all over, the Wildcats might not be pretty on offense, but they can score.
6. UMass Lowell (7-7, 1-0 in AE)
Results: L 70-47 at Boston College; W 50-40 vs Binghamton; L 58-49 at Brown.
This Week: Wednesday at UMBC; Saturday vs Albany.
UMass Lowell’s roster is incredibly limited, and the fact that they have not only been competitive all season long, but already have six wins over Division I foes under their belt this year (two-thirds of the way to last season’s total) is a tremendous testament to the job that Pat Duquette has done and the fact that he’s got his entire team buying in. It’s also a tremendous testament to just how damn good redshirt freshman Jahad Thomas is. The pint-sized power forward is an absolute beast who has been facing constant double and triple-teams all year long, yet ranks second in the conference in scoring (14.8 ppg), second in field goal percentage (.568) and fifth in rebounds (5.6 per game). Whether the fact that team’s are running every junk defense in the book at him is a product of their respect for his talent, or disrespect for his supporting cast is completely irrelevant at this point, because whatever the reasons, he’s demanding attention and still dominating.
7. UMBC (2-11)
Results: L 58-55 vs Lehigh; L 70-55 vs NJIT
This Week: Wednesday vs UMass Lowell; Saturday vs UNH.
You’ve got to feel for head coach Aki Thomas, who is one of the true good guys in the game and who is pouring his heart and soul into trying to rebuild the program from the rubble, yet continues to have every bad bounce and bad break go against him. After losing star guard Rodney Elliot for the season to a torn labrum in their first game, and subsequently suspending three players for violations of team rules, the Retrievers fought with everything they had and started finding ways to win behind relentless defense and transition offense. Then sophomore forward Will Darley went down with a knee injury, dropping UMBC to just six scholarship players in uniform. Somehow, they are still fighting – a testament to their coaches and their character – and they are going to win a few games in league play, but every night is going to be an uphill battle against exhaustion.
8. Maine (1-12, 0-1 in AE)
Results: L 72-43 at Seton Hall; L 81-64 at Quinnipiac; L 80-56 at Albany.
This Week: Wednesday vs Vermont; Saturday at Binghamton.
First year head coach Bob Walsh inherited a skeleton crew from the Titanic so expecting him to turn them around this season is like expecting a miracle. Yet the coach refuses to look for silver linings or moral victories. Maine doesn’t have the depth or the talent to compete at the top of the conference this year, but I still believe the Black Bears will surprise some people in the conference. The team is playing harder than at any point during the previous five-plus years, and is showing a commitment to defense absent in Orono since Dr. John Giannini moved on to greener pastures.
9. Binghamton (1-15, 0-1 in AE)
Results: L 69-68 at Mount Saint Mary’s; L 76-50 vs Buffalo; L 50-40 at UMass Lowell (AE)
This Week: Wednesday at Hartford; Saturday vs Maine.
The roof, the four walls, the side-by-side washer-dryer, the sofa, the kitchen sink, all gone from when the Bearcats blew up their own program. Now head coach Tommy Dempsey is building the program from scratch. That means an entirely new foundation. The rebuild took a big hit when Jordan Reed, the team’s main load-bearing beam (yeah, I went overboard with that cliché) decided to take his talents elsewhere halfway through the season, but there is some really legit young talent on this roster, and more overall this year than in either of Dempsey’s first two years. It’s still a long road to redemption, but fans should have a bit more patience and enjoy the abilities of freshmen like high-flying wing Romello Walker, hard-working forward Willie Rodriguez and high-scoring center Dusan Perovic, all true freshmen.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, and better days ahead… or, at least it can’t get any worse.
OBW America East Player of the Week:
Jameel Warney, Jr. C, Stony Brook.
Seriously, Warney could do nothing more than do the laundry, make his bed and eat a beef-brisket sandwich and he’d still find a way to grab Player of the Week honors. The dude is unstoppable! In three wins Warney was good for 47 points, 30 rebounds, 13 assists and six blocks. ‘Nuff said.
OBW America East Rookie of the Week:
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
Thomas scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go with five rebounds against Boston College, and followed it up with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting and eight rebounds, while making one huge play after another when it mattered most, in a 50-40 win over Binghamton.
OBW America East Fab Five
Peter Hooley, R-Jr., G, Albany
Sam Rowley, Sr., F, Albany
Jahad Thomas, R-Fr., F, UMass Lowell
Jameel Warney, Jr., C, Stony Brook
Dre Wills, Soph., G, Vermont
OBW America East Frosh Five
Aaron Calixte, G, Maine
Jourdan Grant, G, UMBC
Trae Bell-Haynes, G, Vermont
Tanner Leissner, F, New Hampshire
Jahad Thomas, F, UMass Lowell
It was an easily overlooked stat line in a forgettable game: Nine points, two rebounds two assists and three turnovers. Solid numbers, but hardly spectacular. But the small player behind them, 5-foot-10-inch freshman point guard Lance Crawford, made a big difference for UMass Lowell in the River Hawks 50-40 win over Binghamton.
“One of the hardest players, toughness wise, that I’ve seen,” said UMass Lowell junior D.J. Mlachnik about the young point guard after the game.
“Head up, ready to go,” said senior guard Chad Holley of Crawford’s performance, adding, “as a young guard he’ll be leading this team for the next three years.”
When UMass Lowell head coach Pat Duquette signed Crawford, a native of Davie, Florida, last spring, many in the basketball world took notice and assumed that the flashy playmaker would step in as the River Hawks’ starting point guard from day one. But then Duquette added graduate transfer Marco Banegas-Flores, and over the summer, Holley’s game improved greatly at the point position as well.
Very quickly, Crawford went from the presumed prime ball handler, to the third point guard on the depth chart. Many freshmen might have sulked, had second thoughts, or struggled to adapt to playing behind multiple upperclassmen. But according to Duquette and his players, Crawford has thrived in practices, setting his sights on getting better by going at the upperclassmen every day.
“He’s extremely competitive,” said Mlachnick.
“A very tough kid, very big competitor,” echoed Holley.
According to Duquette, Crawford has been a willing student under a pair of seniors in Holley and Banegas-Flores, and has thrived under their mentorship, averaging 9.6 points, 2.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.2 percent from the floor.
“He’s competitive, he’s tough, he’s getting a chance to play 25-30 minutes a game, which is huge for his development,” Duquette said, “but he’s also been able to learn from guys like Marco and Chard so he hasn’t had to carry too much weight.”
And according to Holley, the freshman spark plug has also brought out the best in the upperclassmen.
“It helps, definitely in practice, pushing one another,” he said.
And on Friday, Crawford made an impact far larger than his sheer numbers, hitting all four shots while buoying the River Hawks during scoring droughts in both halves, hitting several tough, contested shots.
What a difference one year can make. A year ago, Pat Duquette and his UMass Lowell basketball team were scratching, scrapping, clawing, clutching and grabbing to try and get a win – any win – in any way possible. On Friday night, Lowell scored its seventh win of the season – just three shy of their entire win total from last season – by 10 points, 50-40, after opening the game down 10-0 to visiting Binghamton.
Duquette was not happy.
“Yeah, we won, 50-40,” he deadpanned, pausing for a second for dramatic effect. “It sure beats a loss, for sure No discredit to Binghamton at all, I just don’t think we played particularly well.”
Lowell turned the ball over 23 times, shot just 5-of-22 from behind the arc (22.7 percent) and grabbed only three offensive rebounds all game, but they still found a way to win. Last season, the end result was all that mattered for Duquette, but this year, simply scoring a victory isn’t good enough.
“We turned the ball over far too many times, we know that, we’ve got to be far more efficient,” he said. “We know that we’re a better basketball team than that, and if we’re going to win as much as we want, and really just be as successful as we want to be then we’ve got to be more efficient than that. We’ve got to take better care of the basketball.”
The shortest team in all of Division I basketball, the River Hawks found a way to gut out a victory by standing tall on the defensive end, forcing 23 Binghamton turnovers, holding the Bearcats to 33.3 percent from the floor (14-of-42) and 2-of-17 from behind the arc (11.8 percent), and ripping down 27 defensive rebounds.
“We did play really good defense, think that’s the silver lining,” said Duquette after the game.
Defense and the continued brilliance of redshirt freshman forward/fullback Jahad Thomas. The 6’2” 230-pound battering ram scored 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting to go with eight rebounds, and continued to make big play after big play, taking the ball right to the rack and finishing over, around and through far bigger players, drawing triple-teams before zipping pinpoint passes to open teammates, and coming up with huge steals, loose balls and rebounds in the games biggest moments.
“He’s an animal,” marveled teammate D.J. Mlachnik.
“The sky’s the limit,” added senior Chad Holley about Thomas, who began the night trailing star Stony Brook center Jameel Warney by 0.1 points per game for the conference lead, while ranking second in shooting percentage (57.1 percent) and fifth in rebounds.
The River Hawks also got big plays from their upperclassmen, including a momentum changing fast break dunk from senior center Kerry Weldon, seven points in the span of a minute and 10 seconds from Holley, and the play of the game, a right corner 3-pointer from Mlachnik with 3:21 remaining to turn a two point lead into a five point difference.
“He only scored three points and he’s here in the press conference,” said Duquette, acknowledging Mlachnik’s importance.
According to Duquette, even bigger than his three-pointer was Mlachnik’s willingness to take on a different, and lesser role from last season for the good of the team. One year after starting all 28 games and averaging 30.6 minutes per contest, Mlachnik has come off the bench for ever UMass Lowell game this season and began the night averaging less than nine minutes per game.
“The way that he handled his changing role is really a testament to his character, and he handled it as well as any player that I’ve ever coached,” said Duquette of Mlachnik. “D.J. was willing to accept a different role, and not a lot of guys would do that and still stay ready, and still stay committed and still keep working hard. And he didn’t not just stop, he worked even harder and that’s why I’m glad to see him get his opportunity back and make the most of it.”
A new year brings a new conference tournament format that raises the stakes on what awaits the nine America East teams over the next nine weeks. Whoever keeps true to these resolutions the longest could very well be the last team standing come March 14.
America East 2015 New Year’s Resolutions
Albany: Better balance inside
Albany’s post game right now is the Sam Rowley show. He’s the only Great Dane in the top 20 in rebounding among conference players, and no other post player has more than four points or rebounds per game. John Puk was a great compliment to Rowley the last two years, both conference tournament championships for Albany. Now, UAlbany needs to find John Puk 2.0 or they will be muscled out of a three-peat.
Binghamton: Lay the groundwork for the future
Binghamton’s resolution won’t fully come to fruition for another year or two, but when it does, it could be something really special. This year’s team was supposed to be carried by Jordan Reed with the hope they might sneak into the top four of the conference and earn a 1st round tournament home game. When Reed left the team earlier this month, the already-young Bearcats got even younger. With just one senior and one junior left on the roster, neither of whom average more than eight minutes a game this season, the pressure falls on the 12 freshmen and sophomores to prove this team will be a legitimate contender down the road.
Hartford: Consistent shooting
It’s been said multiple times that Hartford’s A-game, with a heavy dose of ball movement and outside shooting, is better than anyone else’s A-game in the conference. The issue for them will be making sure that A-game shows up night in and night out. Poor shooting, especially from 3-point range, led to losses at the hands of Sacred Heart, Central Connecticut State, and Rider. Hartford’s A-game is why they were picked 2nd in the pre-season poll, and if they can get hot at the right time, could be what takes them to the top of the conference for the first time ever.
Maine: Better team defense
First year coach Bob Walsh has talent on the offensive side of the ball, as Shaun Lawton, Zarko Valjarevic, and Till Gloger are all top 20 scorers amongst America East teams in non-conference play. Where the Black Bears have been exposed repeatedly this season is the defensive side of the ball. Maine is last amongst AE teams in field goal percentage defense, 3-point percentage defense, and points per game allowed, which at more than 81 a game, is among the worst in all of Division 1. The Black Bears currently force more than seven steals a game, 2nd among conference teams; there just needs to be better execution when those steals don’t happen.
UMass Lowell: Continue ignoring the skeptics
Few expected anything from UMass Lowell when they moved to the Division I level prior to last season; the River Hawks were a unanimous last place pick in the pre-season poll. All they did in response was finish 5th in the conference with an 8-8 record (NCAA transition rules held them out of the conference tournament.) Pat Duquette’s group was once again picked to finish last in the conference this season, but Jahad Thomas and Marco Banegas-Flores have both averaged double figures in scoring in non-conference play, as the team won six of its first eight games, including road wins over Fordham and former America East member Boston University. The will to win can take teams a long way, and this team’s will to win might give a lot of AE teams headaches come 2015.
New Hampshire: Maintain early season balance
On paper, New Hampshire has done nothing mind-blowing this year, but they’re 1st among conference teams in points per game and points allowed. Tanner Leissner, Daniel Dion and Jaleen Smith are all averaging double figures in scoring, leading a balanced attack where each of the 11 Wildcats averaging 10 or more minutes a game has contributed nicely. The Wildcats will have pre-season favorite Stony Brook on the road, followed by two-time defending champion UAlbany at home to open conference play. Both games will have a lot to say about whether the Wildcats’ early success was a fluke, or a potential sign of something special come March.
Stony Brook: (tie) Keep Carson Puriefoy and Jameel Warney healthy/ Get support from players not named Carson Puriefoy and Jameel Warney
The two preseason All-Conference selections, combined, have accounted for a sizeable percentage of the team’s statistics, top to bottom, in non-conference play. The rest of the Seawolves will have to provide their stars with consistent support if the pre-season number one pick is finally going to break through with a conference tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. Kameron Mitchell and Rayshaun McGrew filled those support roles nicely with 22 combined points in the Seawolves’ upset of previously 13th ranked Washington.
UMBC: Offensive execution
Replacing Rodney Elliott, who was declared out for the season with a shoulder injury earlier this month after playing in just one game, has not come easy for UMBC. The Retrievers are last among America East teams in points per game, free throw percentage, and turnovers per game, as well as eighth in 3-point percentage. Elliott carried much of the load as a freshman last year, which brought even larger expectations for this season. Like Binghamton, Aki Thomas may want to start looking ahead to the future, prepping his young unit for a conference tournament title run a few years down the road.
Vermont: Stay healthy
A healthy Vermont team is a scary thought for the rest of the conference. The scary thing for Vermont is that they’ve been unable to stay healthy early in the year. Ernie Duncan played in only four games before red-shirting due to a back injury, Zach McRoberts missed the first seven games due to injury, and Hector Harold missed games vs. Yale and St. Louis with foot problems. Vermont has finished either 1st or 2nd in the conference every year since 2008-2009, and will need a clean bill of health the rest of the season if they want a shot at doing that again this year.
When a new coach takes over a team and is charged with building the program, his relationship with the players he has inherited, especially the veterans – holdovers from the previous regime who will not be a part of the future the program is now building towards – can be dicey at best.
In the case of Pat Duquette and UMass Lowell, the transition and tensions between the new coach and a roster full of players that he didn’t recruit could have been even more turbulent because none of the current players would be able to compete for a post-season berth due to NCAA restrictions on teams moving up to Division I.
“We’re not just trying to compete this year, we’re trying build something for the future, and that’s hard for a guy who only has one year left to do sometimes,” said Duquette, now in his second year at UMass Lowell.
But according to Duquette, the upperclassmen he inherited are what has made the move so seamless and smooth.
“I think it’s really important that you have upperclassmen in the locker room who completely buy in to everything that you’re trying to do,” explained Duquette, whose team lost its first 11 games against Division I opponents last season, only to go 8-8 in America East play and finish fifth in the conference standings.
“These guys have completely bought in from day one and are on the same page with everything that we’re trying to do,” he said.
There were four seniors on the River Hawks roster in the fall of 2013, and in the spring of 2014 all four graduated. Yet after last year’s class walked across the podium to receive their diplomas, only three moved on to other places, while center Kerry Weldon returned to summer individuals in preparation for one last hurrah wearing the River Hawks’ blue and red.
“Kerry is just everything that this program is about,” Duquette said of his now fifth-year senior. “He brings so much to the table in terms of leadership and intangibles, and for him to want to come back for another year to help us build this thing to a future he won’t be able to share in on the court just tells you how special a kid he is.”
Through 11 games this year, Weldon is averaging 5.5 rebounds, 5.2 points and 22.6 minutes per game. Last season, the New York City native averaged 5.4 rebounds, 4.2 points and 23.1 minutes per game. Duquette’s language might seem overly glowing for a player whose stats appear as if they could be easily replaceable (not to mention a player who, at 26.9 percent from the line, may be the worst free throw shooter in the country).
“He embodies everything that we’re about: He’s a 6-foot-5 center who’s competing against guys that are much taller than him,” said Duquette. “He works his tail off, he’s all about winning, he’s a complete team player and he’s a real consistent performer.”
According to Duquette, Weldon’s impact on the defensive end and as a mentor to his young teammates has been an invaluable and irreplaceable component to building the program.
“He led us in charges taken last year, and if they kept a stat for it I think he would have led the conference,” Duquette said. “This year, as a fifth-year senior, he’s being asked to play a complementary role to a lot of younger guys. A lot of seniors might have a real problem with that, but Kerry not only doesn’t have any ego, but genuinely really cares about the future of kids he’s playing with and the program he is playing for.”
In their inaugural season of Division I hoops last year, the UMass Lowell River Hawks lost their first 11 games against DI opponents before registering a single win. They finished the season at 9-18 versus Division I competition and went just 1-10 during the non-conference slate against DI foes.
But after being unanimously picked to finish dead last in the preseason coaches’ poll, and opening the season with a litany of losses, the River Hawks closed out the season by going 8-8 in America East play and 9-8 in their final 17 games. Even with a .333 winning percentage, the season was deemed a smashing success by even the toughest critics.
After graduating three seniors, among them guard Akeem Williams and forward Antonio Bivins who accounted for nearly 30 points per game, and replacing them with eight freshmen and nine newcomers, expectations across the conference were even lower for year two than year one, as UMass Lowell was once again picked dead last in the preseason poll by opposing coaches.
Apparently the River Hawks and head coach Pat Duquette didn’t get the memo.
Eleven games into their second season of Division I basketball — one game before they registered a single win last year — with one of the smallest and least experienced rosters in the nation, the River Hawks currently sit at 5-5 against DI foes and 6-5 overall, with wins over Sacred Heart, Boston University, Fordham and a clean sweep of an NJIT squad that downed Michigan.
“Obviously we’re real happy,” Duquette said. “Last year we didn’t win a Division I game until January, and this year we’ve got [five] Division I wins before Christmas, so I think everybody’s feeling pretty good.”
While conventional thinking was that the graduation of Williams, a dynamic scoring combo-guard, and Bivins, a high-flying human-highlight reel of a forward, the River Hawks would struggle mightily in year two — often times the toughest year for program building.
Yet despite having less star power that last season, the River Hawks appear to be a better team overall this year – and certainly better than last year’s squad at the same point in the season – success that Duquette attributes to the team’s commitment to gutting and grinding games out by getting after it on the defensive end.
“Collectively, the way that they’ve bought in on the defensive end has been a huge reason that we’ve been able to have this success,” said Duquette, whose team is averaging 64.4 points allowed per game, down from nearly 70 points allowed per game overall last season and nearly 74 points per game against non-conference foes.
“They’re just playing great team defense, “ Duquette reiterated.
With just three players in the rotation taller than 6’2” and none taller than 6’6”, the River Hawks are giving up a ton of size and are at a huge disadvantage on the glass every night, but they’ve been winning games by out-toughing and out-working opponents, while executing a slow, methodical offense.
“Because of our size, we have to be efficient in every other category to give ourselves a chance to win,” said Duquette, who admitted that the team’s progress has far outpaced his expectations.
“It’s definitely been quicker than I expected,” he said of the succession of season two wins.
Red-shirt freshman Jahad Thomas, a 6-foot-2-inch 235-pound man without a position playing power forward, has led the River Hawks in scoring and rebounding at 14.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, respectively, while shooting 56 percent from the floor.
But according to Duquette, the team’s success starts with the tone set by role-playing upperclassmen like defensive-minded shooting guard Chad Holley, charge-taking center Kerry Weldon, graduate transfer Marco Banegas-Flores, scrappy walk-on wing Mark Cornelius and off-the-bench gunner D.J. Mlachnik.
“A lot of that credit certainly lies with guys like Chad and Kerry and DJ and Mark Cornelius continuing to establish the right culture in the offseason, and having a guy like Marco who’s played three years of competitive Division I basketball and come in really right away and fit in seamlessly with the crew.”
When UMass Lowell senior Kerry Weldon stepped into the circle at center court for the opening tip Wednesday night, he found himself looking directly into the chest of 6-foot-10-inch Albany center John Puk.
For Weldon, who likely would need to step into a pair of platform shoes just to see his listed height of six-foot-five, craning his neck upwards at his opponent is a nightly occurrence as the River Hawks’ de facto center.
“I’m kind of used to it; I’ve always played against bigger guys,” said Weldon, harkening back to his youth as a small kid playing against grown men on the cracked blacktop courts of New York City. “I wasn’t always tall; it’s kind of normal.”
Still, squaring off against Puk and Albany was something Weldon couldn’t have envisioned a year ago, when he was sitting on the sidelines with a torn meniscus, watching the River Hawks struggle in the Division II Northeast-10 during a year in which he literally swept the gym during practices and mopped the floor during games. At the time, even in his wildest dreams, Weldon couldn’t see himself as simply a Division I player, let alone a Division I center.
“Never, I’ll be honest with you,” said Weldon with a big smile, following River Hawks 70-66 overtime victory Wednesday night, when he was asked if he ever imagined such a scenario.
Growing up in the world basketball Mecca that is New York City, Weldon’s dream was to play Division I hoops. Over a four-year varsity career at St. Agnes High School, Weldon won both the city and state championship as a sophomore and earned All-League honors as a junior and a senior. But Division I coaches never came calling and he committed to play for UMass Lowell as a shooting guard, putting his DI dreams to bed.
Now, he wasn’t just a Division I athlete; he was anchoring a Division I front court.
“Funny story,” said Weldon, “When I was first recruited… I was being recruited as the 2. Got to practice [and I] moved to the 4 and now I’m playing the 5. So, no, I wasn’t expecting that at all,” he explained with a big smile, as Akeem Williams and Antonio Bivins, his teammates for four years, broke into laughter behind him.
And on Wednesday night against a Great Danes squad that started four players taller than him, it was Weldon who dominated the low blocks, scoring 15 points on 4-of-5 shooting, ripping down a game high nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end, while rejecting three shots.
As has been the case every time he has set foot on the court, against Albany’s size, Weldon’s indomitable energy and effort were his great equalizer
The players suiting up and toiling in obscurity for the UMass Lowell River Hawks are too young to remember the speech by the late Jim Valvano about perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles – in fact, many of them weren’t even born when the former NC State coach passed away in April of 1993.
But no team in the country – and quite possibly no team in conference history – has better embodied Valvano’s iconic and inspirational words.
Every time the River Hawks have set foot on the floor since making the leap to Division I, they have been out-manned, outgunned and the decided underdog – at a distinct disadvantage in height, athleticism, strength and talent. They’ve never given up.
The River Hawks didn’t give up when they learned they would be ineligible for post season play during their first four years of Division I hoops per NCAA rules. They didn’t give up when they took the floor for their inaugural division-I game before nearly 13,000 screaming fans at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and found themselves staring across the court at then-seventh ranked Michigan.
The River Hawks didn’t give up when they were blitzed by Boston University out of the opening tip and found themselves trailing 36-11 ten minutes into the first half. The River Hawks didn’t give up when they lost by 30 at Cincinnati or when they were doubled up 78-39 at Columbia.
They didn’t give up even after losing their first 11 Division I games or when they fell behind 15-0 five minutes into their 12th. They only fought harder.
And after going in to the halftime locker room tied with Michigan, winning the first half against preseason America East favorite Vermont, the second half at Boston University and the rebounding battle against Duquesne, the relentless River Hawks finally kicked in the door for their first Division I victory, coming back to claim a 59-54 win over America East rival UMBC on Sunday.
“These guys have persevered a lot over the last few months. We’ve had a brutal travel schedule and played tough opponents, so it’s a testament to their perseverance, they stayed together and fought through a lot of tough times so they deserve this feeling today, so I’m happy for them,” said first-year head coach Pat Duquette following the victory. “We’re all super excited.” Continue reading “Relentless River Hawks never give up, get first Division I win”