River Hawks Rise to the Occasion Vs. UMBC
LOWELL -- The UMass Lowell men’s basketball team was in a desperate need of a U-turn in fortune.
After a strong showing in the non-league portion of the schedule, the River Hawks had stumbled out of the blocks in the first two America East games, losing to Stony Brook and New Hampshire.
With the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), the same club that pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history last March when it stunned Virginia and became the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed, paying a visit to the Tsongas Center on Saturday, UMass Lowell found itself in as close to a must-win situation as a team can be in before the calendar hits mid-January.
The River Hawks, who were playing without starting point guard Ryan Jones due to injury, soared to the challenge.
Junior guard Christian Lutete scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while leading Lowell to a 74-63 victory over UMBC.
The River Hawks received strong efforts off the bench from freshman Alex Rivera (12 points) and senior Shawn Jones (9 points, 5 assists) while evening their overall record at 9-9. The River Hawks are 1-2 in AE.
“Obviously, I’m thrilled with the win tonight,” said UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette. “We’re in a tough spot. Every game is a must-win as far as I’m concerned. But this one meant a little more because we haven’t been off to a great start (in AE). We definitely should have won the game at UNH (on Wednesday). We had to put that behind us, which is hard to do with the way we lost it.
“We felt like we could have played better against Stony Brook. It’s easy to be disappointed and it was easy to maybe not put forth the effort or focus we needed today, especially without Ryan Jones, our starting point guard. These guys responded and they always have, and I knew they would. We have a lot of character in our locker room.”
A lot of what UMass Lowell generated on offense started at the defensive end. The River Hawks came up with a lot of big stops, rarely giving the Retrievers open shots, that led to strong looks on offense off transition. UMBC only shot 34.5 percent (10-for-29) from the field in the second half.
“Holding a team to 63 points, for us that’s a minor miracle,” said Duquette. “We’re not always going to be able to score. So we’re going to have to learn how to win games while scoring less. Tonight defensively we were a little bit better.”
UMass Lowell was leading 36-29 at halftime. The River Hawks opened the second half with an 18-11 run, stretching its lead to 54-40.
During the early second half surge Lutete hit several key baskets and Rivera drained a pair of treys.
“We responded very well,” said Lutete. “Going down 0-2 in the conference and coming out here and responding the way we did shows what type of team we are. I feel this game is very encouraging.”
Rivera was 4-for-9 from beyond the arc. He also played well in Lowell’s stingy effort on defense.
“I know Alex is going to make shots,” said Duquette. “He’s been a little off (with his shooting) the last few games. He knows that. But he has tremendous confidence in himself and I have confidence in him.
“I want him to take good shots. And if does, he’s going to make his fair share. I’m more pleased with the progress he’s making defensively.”
UMass Lowell grabbed the lead early in the first half and continued to build on it. Any time it looked like UMBC (9-9, 1-2 AE) might but a run together, the River Hawks came up with a stop on defense, or hit a momentum changing basket.
Obadiah Noel tossed in nine points, while Josh Gantz, who played a strong game on defense, and Darius Henderson scored eight points each.