The Vermont Catamounts (23-10) are the kings of America East. For those that still doubt their ability, they put on a second-half clinic of defense and unselfish play to defeat the UMass Lowell River Hawks (26-8), 72-59. Down two at the half, the Catamounts outscored the River Hawks 47-30 in the second half. They were led by fifth-year guard Dylan Penn who would score 13 of his game-high 21 points in the second twenty minutes. When Penn was not putting the ball through the hoop, he was finding open teammates who would do the same. Matt Veretto (15 points, 4-of-9 from the field, 3-of-6 from 3-point land ) was the benefactor of Penn’s handling of the Catamounts offense in the second half. He was not alone, Finn Sullivan another fifth-year player had a 14 points game on 4-of-12 shooting, and 3-of-9 from deep. Vermont put its weapons to good use in the second half and the River Hawks had a difficult time slowing them down. River Hawks head coach Pat Duquette said of Penn “he was tough, when we doubled him he found the open guy for some wide-open looks.”
The first half was a tight dogfight between the two teams. There were 10 lead changes in the half with no ties. UMass Lowell was winning the battle in the paint (20-14) and off the bench. Cam Morris III gave the River Hawks some valuable minutes off the bench when Max Brooks got into some early foul trouble. His six points and seven rebounds were a problem for the Catamounts. Meanwhile, Penn (8 points) and Sullivan (7 points) were doing their best to counter what Morris was giving the River Hawks. A 5-0 Vermont run gave them a 16-9 lead with 11:13 left in the half. Fifth-year guard Robbie Duncan had three of those points on a free throw and a layup in the paint. Ileri Ayo-Faleye ended the run with another layup at the rim. The sold-out crowd at Patrick Gym was loving what they were seeing. They were quickly quieted by a River Hawks run of 8-0 that gave them the lead at 18-16. Baskets by Morris in the paint, Allin Blunt (14 points) with an inside hoop and a 3-pointer, and a jumper from Ayinde Hikim had the River Hawks back in front with 6:41 to go in the first. UMass Lowell took their biggest lead of the half on a 7-0 run with Everette Hammond scoring five of the seven points. Four came after being fouled while knocking down a three-point shot. The River Hawks were up 29-21 with 1;21 to play. Patrick Gym was getting a little nervous. Vermont closed out the half by scoring the final four points to get to the locker room down 29-25. It could have been worse, but Hikim’s 3-point buzzer-beater was waved off by the officials for being after time expired. Vermont was 0-8 when trailing at the half, while the River Hawks were 23-3 at the break.
The second half belonged to Vermont. A 5-0 run by the Catamounts got them started. Penn had four of the five points with Sullivan adding the other. The River Hawks took the lead back on three free throws from Blunt. It was 32-30 Lowell with 17:42 to play. That is when Matt Veretto enters the picture. His 3-pointer gave the Catamounts the lead back at 33-32 with 17:10 left. Once again, Lowell took the lead back on a lay-in by Morris and a three-pointer by Hammond. It was 37-35 with 13:09 to go. That would be the final time that UMass Lowell would have the lead. Over the final thirteen minutes of the game, Vermont would outscore UMass Lowell by a 37-22 count. A Penn jumper gave the home team their first double-digit lead of 11 at 57-46 with 6:13 to play. Veretto contributed six points during this stretch. Sullivan with a three plus one got it to thirteen at 63-50 with 2:10 left. The crowd could sense that a net cutting was on the way and it would be the home team doing the cutting. They were right, as Vermont won their 10th America East title with a 72-59 win over the UMass Lowell River Hawks. They are now 8-3 all-time in title games at Patrick Gym.
If there is any good news for UMass Lowell it is that their season may not be over. Coach Duquette did say after the game “that he will meet with the players on Sunday to go over their options. A first-time postseason bid to a mid-major tournament is still in the cards. He also said “this one stings.” But he is looking forward to the future of UMass Lowell basketball.
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