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River Hawks Come Up Just Short in Conference Tourney

March 10, 2019

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Two regular season games showed there isn’t a lot separating the UMass Lowell and Hartford men’s basketball teams.

Hartford 79, UML 70

That rang true again Saturday at Chase Arena, with the teams providing 40 minutes of egde-of-your-seat action in an America East quarterfinal. The difference in this drama-filled tourney battle was five senior starters who simply refused to let it be their final night in a Hartford uniform.

Senior forward John Carroll calmly swished a 3-pointer from the right elbow with 43 seconds remaining to put the host fourth-seeded Hawks ahead 73-70, and senior point guard J.R. Lynch added five free throws down the stretch to ice it as Hartford defeated No. 5 UMass Lowell, 78-70.

Carroll made four 3-pointers and finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds, Lynch tallied 21 points and six assists, and all five Hartford starters scored in double figures. The Hawks (18-14) punched their ticket to a Tuesday semifinal and are just two wins away from an NCAA Tournament automatic bid.

“I want to credit UMass Lowell, one of the younger teams in our league. They’re going to have a great next couple of years. (UMass Lowell’s) Pat Duquette is one of the better coaches in the America East,” said Hartford head coach John Gallagher. “We’re fortunate to win, we’re excited to move on, and we feel really excited wherever we have to go next.”

UMass Lowell played four freshmen big minutes and were led by sophomore guard Obadiah Noel’s 21 points (8-for-15) and junior guard Christian Lutete’s 18 points (7-for-10) and seven rebounds. Senior forward Josh Gantz added 14 points and eight rebounds, and freshman guard Alex Rivera had seven points and three rebounds in 27 minutes off the bench.

Even though the River Hawks lacked experience, they still led for longer than Hartford, including a 37-31 advantage at the half. In all, there were 11 lead changes and seven ties, and neither team ever led by more than eight.

“I thought it was a great playoff college basketball game. Great atmosphere, good crowd,” said Duquette, whose team finished 15-17, setting a Division 1 program record for wins. “Two real good teams going at it, evenly matched. We’ve had three great games this season. Guys had to make some really good plays in order to win and that’s just the type of game you want. I thought they made some great shots in the second half. J.R. Lynch made a couple tough shots, Carroll hit a couple tough shots. That’s what seniors do if they want to keep their season going and their careers going.”

The teams split a pair of regular season games. UML won at Hartford on Jan. 19, 76-73, and the Hawks won in Lowell on Feb. 23, 75-73. The River Hawks nearly turned the trick again on the road. But Hartford seemed to always have the composed response and the benefit of 13 offensive rebounds.

Hartford went on a 12-1 run to start the second half and take a 43-38 lead, which got the crowd involved. To young UMass Lowell’s credit, it didn’t go away. A Lutete 3-pointer put the visitors up 65-62 with 4:59 left. And, later, a layup by Noel put UML up 67-64 with 3:46 left.

Carroll nailed a triple to tie it at 67-67, and Lynch put Hartford ahead 70-67 with a difficult three from the top of the key with the shot clock expiring and 2:24 on the clock. The Hawks made four shots in the game with the shot clock expiring.

Lynch was named First Team All-Conference on Friday and received even more praise from Gallagher after the game.

“I think he’s the best point guard, not in mid-major basketball, I think he’s the best point guard in the country,” said Gallagher. “I would put him against anybody, anytime, anywhere.”

Duquette started senior guard and defensive specialist Shawn Jones to pressure Lynch as best he could. Jones played an excellent game on both ends over his 35 minutes. He finished with eight points, four assists and just one turnover.

Jones limited Lynch to just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting in the first half, which heavily contributed to UML’s lead. The River Hawks shot 51.7 percent in the first 20 minutes, while Hartford was at 40 percent.

“They did one thing on the ball screen coverage that really, really surprised us,” said Gallagher. “It’s what you call icing the ball screens. At halftime, we made an adjustment and that’s why we scored 47 in the second half. When you have a senior-laden team, you can make those adjustments.”

Duquette had a similar take as to why Hartford was able to erase deficits.

“They’re a senior-laden team, they’ve got a lot of experience,” Duquette said. “They’re not doing well by accident, usually they’re doing well because they’re sharing the ball and taking high-percentage shots. I just told our guys to stick with it and see if we can fight back into it. That’s really hard to do on the road and in this type of atmosphere. So that’s what I’m really happy with.”

For the second straight year, the River Hawks’ season ended with a road quarterfinal loss.

Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone