For the second time in the Division 1 era of the UMass Lowell River Hawks (26-7), they will play for the America East Championship on Saturday morning. That’s because on Tuesday night before a sold-out crowd at Costello Athletic Center, the River Hawks defeated the New Hampshire Wildcats by a 75-64 score. The victory set up a game between the top two seeds in the Jersey’s Mike America East Tournament. UMass Lowell will make the trip to Burlington, Vt. to take on the Vermont Catamounts (22-10) for the tournament title and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The final score ended up being the largest lead of the night for either team. The game featured 11 ties and 11 lead changes. As Wildcats head coach Bill Herrion said afterward, “UMass Lowell just made more plays down the stretch.” With five minutes left in the game, the Wildcats were down three after Nick Johnson (game-high 21 points and four steals) knocked down two free throws. From that point, the River Hawks outscored the Wildcats 10-4 to win the game. Give UNH credit. They lost their best player Clarence Daniels (12 points, seven rebounds) to fouls with four minutes left in the game. It was at that point that the River Hawks were able to make their move and pull away from New Hampshire. River Hawks head coach Pat Duquette said post-game “UNH played great and played hard.” He likened the game to a heavyweight fight, and for most of the game that is exactly the kind of game it was.
The first half alone had three ties and five lead changes. The biggest lead of the half belonged to UMass Lowell as back-to-back 3-point shots from Yuri Covington and Allin Blunt (19 points, 4 steals, 2 turnovers) got the River Hawks going. The run continued as Ayinde Hikim (14 points, 4 assists, 2 steals) scored on a fast break at the rim, then Covington knocked down another three and the River Hawks were up seven at 27-20 with 5:10 left in the half. But just as quickly as the River Hawks built that lead they almost gave it back as fast. Five straight turnovers by UMass Lowell allowed the Wildcats to finish the first half on a 10-2 run that made it a one-point lead for Lowell at 34-33 at the half. Coach Duquette called that final 1:38 “frustrating” because we let them back into the game. Johnson with four, Kyree Brown (15 points, seven assists) with two, Ridvan Tutic with a basket, and Daniels with a fast break dunk had the Wildcats in great shape heading into the second half. UNH was 2-10 when trailing after the first twenty minutes, while Lowell was 22-3 when leading at the break.
The one stat that coach Herrion was concerned about was the bench points. UMass Lowell had an 11-0 advantage in that category in the first half. For the game, it turned out to be 19-5. The second half started the way the first half ended with the River Hawks turning the ball over for the sixth straight time. There would be two ties in the first three minutes as the Wildcats would not go away. Free throws by Johnson tied the game at 36-36. Then Daniels hit a deep three from the top of the key to again tie the game at 40-40 with 16:59 left. The game remained close through the middle stages of half number two. Finally, the River Hawks gave themselves and their fans some breathing room with an 11-3 run that included the last seven points of the game to put it away. Blunt had five of those points, and Hammond had three. The River Hawks also made five free throws to nail down the win 75-64. UMass Lowell would outscore the Wildcats by ten, 41-31 in the second half. UMass Lowell also benefited from 14 points off turnovers and 11 fast break points in the second half.
The play of the River Hawks on the defensive end of the floor should not get overlooked. They held the Wildcats to 41.8% shooting from the field (23-of-55) and 33.3% from 3-point land (7-of-21). While they shot 51% from the field (23-of-46), 70% from three’s (7-of-10), and 81% from the foul line (22-of-27). They are now 17-0 at home this season. However, they will not play at home come Saturday morning as they will get on a bus and head up to Burlington, Vt to face the regular season champs, the Vermont Catamounts. They split the two regular-season games with each team winning on their home court. Vermont gets to the title game off of a 79-57 win over Binghamton on Tuesday night. For the season, the River Hawks are 3-5 on the road. Tipoff on Saturday morning is at 11 AM.
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