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At UMass-Lowell, there’s an end that’s part of a beginning

March 1, 2014 Columns No Comments

LOWELL, Mass. – They sailed off into the sunset, or something like that. And with it, the first chapter in a new beginning closed.

That’s enough with the cliches, though they provide an apt introduction into a look at the first year of Division I at UMass-Lowell and Senior Night. The seniors will move on, but the program is just beginning, and aided by the four seniors, the first season can only be looked at as a success and a reason to believe the future has a lot of promise for the program.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that would have guessed we would win eight America East games,” said head coach Pat Duquette.

UMass-Lowell finishes its inaugural season 10-18 overall, including an 8-8 mark in America East play. Those are numbers not many figured for this team, a team of players recruited to play Division II, although it also serves to illustrate that there is less difference between a high level of Division II and the lowest levels of Division I than is commonly believed. In addition, the River Hawk players all had dreams of playing at the Division I level, and now have had their chance – a chance, among other things, to prove they belong.

Perhaps no one illustrated this better than Akeem Williams, one of the seniors honored on Thursday night. Williams was on the radar for a long time and got plenty of Division I interest before ultimately joining the River Hawks. He had many high-scoring games on the travel circuit, including one where he helped his team score a big win over the Juice All-Stars, at the time one of New York’s signature programs. Ironically, Stony Brook’s Dave Coley was on that Juice team, and Coley was also guarding Williams when he reached 2,000 career points recently.

Simply put, scoring is something Williams could always do, and he showed he could do it against Division I foes this season. While he didn’t do it at the same clip as he did his first three seasons, that doesn’t just owe to the level of competition, as teams also built defenses around slowing or stopping him more than before. He did plenty of it in high school and on his travel team, and then did plenty in college – 2,057 points, to be exact.

“I think we proved ourselves this year,” said Williams. “The wins kind of helped explain it. We all played with a chip on our shoulder the entire year, and I think that fueled us every night.”

When the River Hawks got Antonio Bivins back from what was first thought to be a season-ending injury in January, that gave them their biggest boost. They had more size, and a lot of athleticism in the frontcourt as well, and that made them different. They went 9-7 in games he played, and he put the exclamation point on things when he put a Maine defender on a poster on a fast break with about a minute and a half to go. That capped off a sterling 24-point, 12-rebound night that came on 9-12 shooting, and the dunk will be talked about perhaps as much as his early return and how much he helped this team win eight conference games in their inaugural season.

Teammate Kerry Weldon, who sometimes has a little game going with Bivins in the dunk department, had one early in the game and thought he might have an edge on his buddy in this one.

“I’m not going to lie, I kind of did,” said Weldon, who was right behind Bivins for the lead in rebounding on the season. “Next thing I knew, I saw him take the ball and he was going, and I was like, oh man.”

Parris Massey has taken as circuitous a route to this point as any of the four seniors. Because he redshirted two seasons, one of them due to injury, like Weldon it is possible he could be back next year. Massey gave them a player with Division I experience, albeit limited since he never got in a game at Sacred Heart, and his injuries have slowed him to where he’s not the player he looked to be in high school. Still, he brought a lot of intangibles to this team, and he will have plenty of factors going into whether or not he tries to go one more year. Besides health concerns, there is getting on with life, and he has plenty of other talents to further explore, like music, poetry and painting, and he has also won cooking competitions.

Duquette was likewise in his first year as a head coach, so he had a growth process that went along with that of the players. With a year under his belt and seeing how a season at the school went, he sees the potential the program has better than ever. What this year’s seniors did is all part of it.

“I think our team executed this year, they played hard every game,” said Duquette. “I think these guys helped build a really important foundation that’s always going to serve this program well. I think all the ingredients are there, and I think even more now than when I got the job. In the long term, we can build a really successful program.”

The graduating seniors helped get the program to Division I, and got a chance to play at this level. They gave the program a taste of instant success and a lot of reason for optimism in the future. Their careers are ending, and all have come a long way, but they have left their mark on the program as it sets out for future success.

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