A season that started back in October with preseason workouts and with non-conference games in November comes down to one game. The UMass Lowell River Hawks (26-7) go on the road to Patrick Gym to meet the Vermont Catamounts (22-10) for the right to call themselves the America East Basketball Tournament Champions and take the automatic bid to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. These two teams were the number one and two seeds when this event started. Both teams had home court throughout the tournament and showed why they deserve to be in this position. This has the chance to be a terrific game before what is expected to be a sold-out gathering at Patrick Gym. Let’s look at the matchup.
The River Hawks, who were the preseason number three in the coaches poll, arrive in Burlington, VT. having won six in a row and 10 of 11. They have had a season’s first like the 26 wins. The most in program history. They went a perfect 17-0 at home. They spent six straight weeks in the collegeinsider Top 25 Mid-Major poll. They lead the league in scoring margin at +12.8. They are the top defensive team in the league allowing 65.8 points per game. This is a deep team and coach Pat Duquette has called them “the deepest team since I have been at UMass Lowell. ” The bench averages 25 points a game, while the offense scores at 78.7 points a night. When they knocked down seven 3-point shots in a game they were 16-1. The River Hawks have scored at least 70 points a game in 25 of 32 games. They ranked 57th in the nation in defensive rebounding. Abdoul Karim Coulibaly ranks 34th in the country in offensive rebounding per game at 3.13. Max Brooks has been protecting the rim and he owns the program record for blocks with 67 and leads the conference with 1.8 blocks per game. UMass Lowell is 10-7 on the road this season. They are making their second trip in three years to the championship game and are looking to become the 14th different program to win the title.
The Vermont Catamounts were the #1 team in the preseason coaches poll. After starting slow this year, Vermont has picked it up considerably having won 14 in a row. In fact, the last loss sustained by Vermont was to the River Hawks at Costello Athletic Center back on January 11 by an 80-65 score. It should be noted that the Catamounts were shorthanded for that game, as both T.J. Hurley and Conference Player of the Year Finn Sullivan were injured and did not play that night. They both returned for the game in Vermont and helped the Catamounts to a 93-81 win on February 11. This will be the first-ever playoff meeting between the two teams. Vermont is 6-2 at Patrick Gym in title games. They are making their seventh title game appearance in eight years, and 16th all-time. They are after their league-record 10th championship. With a win, head coach John Becker would add six titles to his resume and surpass both Jim Calhoon and Will Brown for most championships in the league. Vermont has the second-best defense in the league at 66.8 a game, second-best FG percentage at 47%, and leads the conference in made 3-point shots averaging 8.6 a game. The Catamounts led the league in turnover margin at 2.16 (302 to 371 for opponents) and in assists/turnover ratio at 1.45 (437 to 302). Robbie Duncan leads in both assists with 143 for an average of 4.5 a game, and in assists/turnover ratio at 3.3 (143 assists to 43 turnovers). Vermont is 16-4 all-time ve UMass Lowell.
In other news around the league, NJIT is looking for a new coach after Brain Kennedy stepped down earlier this week. Kennedy had been the Highlanders’ head coach for the past seven seasons. Before becoming the head coach, he served as an assistant for four years. During his time with the program, the Highlanders made two trips to the CIT tournament. This season, NJIT was 7-23 overall and 4-12 in league play. They finished the season on a six-game losing streak. A national search has already begun.
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