Entering his second season with eight freshmen, UMass Lowell head coach Pat Duquette did not know what to expect.
Duquette knew he was testing a young team by opening with their first give games on the road — three of which were played in a span of four days. However, he has been pleasantly surprised as they rattled off three straight road victories.
“I don’t think anybody expected this,” Duquette said. “I like my group, but we had so many young guys and so many new guys, I just thought it would take a while to blend everything together and build some chemistry. It seems like these guys have come together a little sooner than I thought.”
In their final game, they led by as many as 12 points over Fordham in the second half and beat the Rams 64-57. In doing so, they notched the America East Conference’s first victory over an Atlantic 10 school since Albany beat Duquesne to open the 2012-13 season.
UML’s effective height is just over 6′ tall, according to kenpom.com, ranking last in the nation. Coming into the season, Duquette knew that his group would have to become a quick defensive team to try to make up for their lack of size.
“I think that we’re trying real hard to keep the ball out of the lane by playing help defense, help team defense,” Duquette said. “Then, when it does get in the lane, we’re just swarming the ball and trying to attack it with our quickness. Both those things have been effective, guys have understood how to do that and are willing to make the effort.”
The River Hawks turned the Rams over 18 times by clogging up the lane and stripping players of the ball on drives to the basket. Sunday was UMass Lowell’s best defensive performance of the season, holding Fordham to 0.83 points per possession. They also held Sacred Heart and NJIT to under a point per possession on the three-game swing, pulling out victories in both games.
“These guys have really bought into that identity, where we’re smaller, but we’re hungrier and we’re tougher,” Duquette said. “We’re going to take a lot of pride in our half court defense because that’s the only way we can stay in these games and sure enough, that’s really how we’ve been able to have the success is just being really tough and hard nosed and our half court defense.”
The one stat that Duquette gets to laugh off after their Fordham victory is that the River Hawks made an uncharacteristic 27% of their free throws. UML shot 29% from three in the game, meaning their seven-point win came in a game where they shot better from three than the line. Even with that, UMass Lowell distanced themselves away from Fordham by converting 48% of its field goals in the second half.
“We’re playing a lot of young players and we’re making mistakes,” Duquette said. “We’re still learning about ourselves, yet we just won three games and that’s probably the most surprising thing to me, is that we’re able to play a lot of these young guys, overcome some mistakes and still win.”
UMass Lowell goes for their longest winning streak in Duquette’s tenure on Tuesday night against Division III Mount Ida.
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.