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UMass-Lowell’s potential more visible after first game at the Tsongas Center

December 23, 2013 Columns No Comments

LOWELL, Mass. – The hope is that Saturday is part of a turning point for UMass-Lowell. That holds for more than just the overall future of the basketball program, although it is most noteworthy from a long-term vantage point. While Pat Duquette emerges with mixed feelings, there appears to be more positive than negative, as well as some thoughts for the immediate future.

“I didn’t think we played well enough to deserve to win today, which is too bad because it was certainly a historic day for the UMass-Lowell men’s basketball program and an exciting day for everybody involved,” said the River Hawk mentor after a 95-77 loss at the Tsongas Center.

Later, he reflected further. “I kind of have mixed feelings, because I’m absolutely thrilled about this arena and the environment that was here for the game. Our fans stayed until the end, down 20, and cheered. I wish we took advantage of it more than we did and came out ready to play and defended better.”

The game was the first-ever for the program in the arena as a Division I program, and it has a lot of significance beyond that. Over 1,700 people were in attendance, which is big because the semester is over and thus students are now home. As Duquette noted, most of the crowd stayed right to the end, which means they got to witness Kerry Weldon getting a loose ball and going in alone for a dunk in the final seconds. That certainly can lead one to imagine what the building can look like and how the atmosphere can be with students on campus.

“Without our students on campus, to have that many fans and have the place be that energetic, I think it’s a testament to our administration, but I think it’s a great sign of things to come and the possibility that exists here for a successful men’s basketball program,” said Duquette.

Duquette said the arena is the first place they bring recruits to when on campus. He and the staff believe it to be a big selling point, and given the competition in America East it’s understandable. The only arena in the conference that can really compete with this one is Binghamton’s Events Center, although Stony Brook’s renovations to Pritchard Gymnasium make it much better than it was before. Long the home of the powerhouse ice hockey team at the school, as well as a number of other events in the area, they will play two more games there this season and more next season. In time, it should become the permanent home for the basketball program’s home games.

You can pick up the excitement Duquette has for the program when the arena comes up in conversation. Well before practice started, he was raving about it and felt it has potential to be a big help in getting recruits. After Saturday, one can see that.

Just having the arena won’t be enough, however. The product has to be good, too, as the hockey team knows. Right now that will be easier said than done in terms of results, as this is not a deep team and not a big team, and as such they’re under-manned against even teams like Duquesne, which is in the midst of some rebuilding. Wins will be hard to come by, although fans will be happy if there is effort and the team shows progress.

The River Hawks managed to out-rebound the Dukes 33-28 on Saturday, a sign of the fight the team has. The atmosphere probably got them a bit at first, as they fell behind 19-3, but they showed life around the halfway point and ended the first half scoring 23 of their 30 points in the final 11:25. Paris Massey, who has had a tough career with a bad knee injury at one point and transferring from his original school, had a double-double and was one of five players who scored in double figures, the first time that has happened in their brief Division I history.

While the rebounding number was good, as well as giving the ball away just seven times and the scoring balance, they naturally want more as they are competitive players and coaches.

“We also decided as a group that we were tired of the moral victories and that we were going to come back in the second semester and get some real victories,” Duquette said when the bright spots were mentioned.

Duquette’s opposite number on Saturday, Duquesne head coach Jim Ferry, knows the area and the program well. He played at Keene State in New Hampshire and also knew about River Hawk senior guard Akeem Williams. He feels the potential is there, for reasons like the arena, having the Boston market all to themselves in America East after Boston University’s departure, and the school having a lot to offer. Time is the big thing needed, but they’re in a conference where they can eventually win, not unlike Bryant a ways down the road, which is guided by Duquette’s former colleague Tim O’Shea.

“Once (Duquette) gets the pieces, they’re going to be fine,” said Ferry.

Certainly, Duquette can take a long view right now. Besides the overall adjustment, he’s in his first head coaching job, so there’s a growth process there as well. With the first of three games this season at the Tsongas Center now in the books, there is visual evidence of some of the potential.

“All the ingredients are here with the arena and the fans to build an incredibly successful basketball program,” said Duquette. “I believe that more today than I ever have.”

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