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UMass-Lowell has to manage surprising success

December 2, 2014 Columns No Comments

BOSTON – Pat Duquette admits he and his staff didn’t see this coming. It’s a pleasant surprise, certainly, but UMass-Lowell’s surprising early success is something that the coaching staff will have to adjust to the implications of. Call it a pleasant problem, if you will.

“They’ve come together quicker than we imagined as a coaching staff, for sure,” Duquette said after the River Hawks beat Boston University 69-59 on Sunday.

November could hardly have gone much better for UMass-Lowell. The month ended with the River Hawks sporting a 5-2 record and another road win. More importantly, this team is showing a lot of toughness and more confidence, and that bodes well later on, especially with all their youth. You could see all of it in Sunday’s win.

Boston University threw a lot of defenses at the River Hawks. They played zone, they played man, they pressed, at times they got back from the press, and they switched matchups. That can be tough for any team, having to recognize defenses and then make plays based on it, but the River Hawks shot 52.4 percent from the field. Defensively is where they shined, and while Boston University has a lot of offensive question marks, holding the Terriers below 36 percent shooting is still impressive, as is winning the battle on the glass 35-29 against a bigger team.

“I think we’ve started to establish an identity, it begins on the defensive end,” said Duquette. “These guys have clearly bought in to who they are and how they win, and it’s the defensive end, their tough, hardcore man-to-man defense.”

The Terriers made a run to start the second half, and they regained the lead early on. But rather than let that be a fatal blow, the River Hawks struck right back, going on a 13-0 run to take the lead for good. That run was sparked by Mark Cornelius (11 points, five rebounds) and freshman Lance Crawford, but they were hardly alone. Down the stretch, everyone had a hand, but Chad Holley was right in the middle of everything. The senior had ten points and five rebounds, but more importantly, was seemingly in every big play at both ends.

“I don’t think you can underestimate how much of an impact Chad Holley had, and how a lot of our defensive intensity comes from Chad,” said Duquette.

Holley, along with Northeastern transfer Marco Banegas-Flores and Kerry Weldon, who struggled with foul trouble on Sunday, are the big leaders on this team. Winning this game with Weldon being limited is one more sign of how far this team has come, as they are less dependent on their most experienced player for production. Instead, it’s one of their least experienced, Jahad Thomas, who has quickly become the star in that respect. That continued on Sunday, as he had 21 points on 7-11 shooting and grabbed five rebounds.

Thomas, who redshirted last season due to a torn ACL, is a tough matchup, as he’s athletic but powerful on the perimeter. He has scored in double figures in all but one game thus far and also leads them in rebounding. In the first half on Sunday, he took over for a stretch as the River Hawks took the lead, then stretched it out as he closed the half on a personal 5-0 run.

The River Hawks have already far surpassed early expectations many had of them this season, as they’ve done this in an opening stretch where they played just one game on campus. Winning at Boston University, and in the fashion they did it, is huge for this team. Yes, they have won on the road thus far, including one against an Atlantic 10 team. But winning against a perennial contender, in a gym where the River Hawks were humbled a year ago in a game that was never competitive, is a big step.

With a host of veterans, including top scorer Akeem Williams, gone from last season’s team, this figured to be the kind of season many thought last year would be as they stepped up to Division I. The River Hawks have eight freshmen and a sophomore on their roster. It’s early, and this season can still end up being a struggle later on, but thus far the River Hawks are playing like a more experienced team. They are smaller at almost every position, so this team still has to be a max effort team to win a lot of games. With success like this, the challenge is a bit different for the staff and the players.

“I think the tricky thing moving forward is, once you realize you’re good, are you still going to play like an underdog?” said Duquette. “Are you still going to play hungry? Are you still going to play as gritty? If we do, then we’ll continue to have success.”

As Duquette noted, the River Hawks aren’t likely to be seen as much of an underdog now. Opponents will see their record and prepare with more urgency. They will see that the River Hawks may be small, but they’re tough, and they’re doing something right given that four of their wins have come on the road. Duquette said he will try to ride the underdog role as long as possible, and you can sense the players embracing that as well as the defensive focus.

“We made a choice to play hard every night, and we’ve got something to prove,” said Thomas. “We’re sending a message to everyone that we’re going to play hard no matter what, and we’re not going to back down.”

The toughest challenges on the schedule come later in December. NJIT (home), Cornell (road) and Dartmouth (home), their next three games before final exams, are not easy, but they are the most winnable games. They close it out with trips to Duquesne and Boston College before America East play (with a trip to Brown mixed in early in January). They will have plenty of chances to continue to embrace that underdog role.

Thus far, UMass-Lowell has had more success than anyone except for those in the locker room imagined. There are still challenges ahead for this team. But the way they have won games, including Sunday’s, bodes well for what lies ahead. It also poses a problem that a lot of teams would love to have, and one that can be solved largely by doing a lot of what they have done to this point.

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