Three Thoughts: Hartford 68, UMass Lowell 62 (OT)

There are few positive things that come from being ineligible for the NCAA Tournament for a Division I basketball coach, but one of them might be a little ease on the pressure that most of their other brethren in the coaching fraternity feel.

This is doubly so for UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette, whose team (due to the transition period from Division II to Division I) won’t be a contender for the America East championship until 2018. Add that to the fact that Duquette was forced to replace almost everyone from last season’s surprising team that went 8-8 in its inaugural season in America East and was picked dead last again this season.

So Duquette can – at least comparatively – relax, watch his team improve as the season progresses, and experiment for the future, right?

Except those things fly out the side door of Hartford’s barn when your team makes a remarkable comeback on the road against one of the top teams in the league, only to see a 5-point lead (with the ball) disappear in the final 90 seconds and a shot to win by freshman Jahad Thomas rim out at the buzzer. UMass Lowell didn’t get a field goal until the closing seconds of overtime as Hartford escaped with a 68-62 win, that – despite the lack of pressure and expectations this season – hurt for the River Hawks.

“Those guys are really disappointed and so am I,” Duquette said. “But I know down inside, that this was a hell of an effort and we can grow from it.”

Here are my other thoughts from the Chase Family Arena, where Hartford has a big game with Albany on Thursday:

1. UMass Lowell is an amazing team to watch live – On most nights, Mark Nwakamma is a little undersized in the post, being listed at 6’6”. On Saturday, he towered over Thomas, who – if you just looked at the stat sheet, is a massive force in the paint, averaging a team-leading 14 points and six rebounds per game. Then you see him on the court, and the River Hawks don’t even bother to try to say he’s taller than 6’2”. And yet, by the end, he’s got 16 points and nine rebounds. Fellow freshman Matt Harris won’t win any bodybuilding contests in the near future and doesn’t have a beautiful stroke, but buried a couple of huge shots to give the River Hawks the lead. UMass Lowell (9-9, 3-2) has proven already that their success isn’t a fluke, having won six Division I road games already this season, and being in almost all of their losses.

“Our three leading scorers were freshmen, they’re going up against seniors,” Duquette said. “Chad Holley continues to provide leadership for us. He didn’t score a bunch of points (7 pts, 5 rebs, 5 assts), but he’s the one that’s holding the thing together.”

2. This win will look better in March for Hartford  – Obviously, the collapse for most of the second half (getting outscored 25-9 at one stretch to put the River Hawks up 51-44) is not ideal, especially at home. However, the Hawks (10-7, 3-1) made some huge plays down the stretch to force overtime, including a steal from Wes Cole (who added a three-pointer in overtime), who has struggled offensively for much of the season. Hartford also worked to keep the ball alive trailing by three, allowing Justin Graham to finally bury a game-tying three-pointer with 26 seconds left after two offensive rebounds (one by Nwakamma, one by Corban Wroe). Nwakamma took over in the extra session, and in the end, it’s just another win in the record books.

“There’s one or two games a year in college basketball where you have to win like this,” Hartford coach John Gallagher said.

Nwakamma added: “It’s a win. We’ll take it. We’re not going to give it back no matter how we got it.”

3. Big stretch coming up for Hartford – As we saw Saturday, the Hawks have not quite gotten the consistency down this season, although they have done a good job at winning close games (they at New Hampshire late 68-67 on Wednesday as well). We’ll know much more about whether they can contend in America East as they play the three other contenders (Albany, Stony Brook, and Vermont) in the next couple of weeks (with UMBC and Maine sprinkled in there as well). Hartford is still just 272nd in offensive efficiency nationally, but there is room for improvement if they can take care of the ball and get some consistent outside shooting from someone.

“We had some shots that we usually make and we turned it over in places we usually don’t turn it over,” Gallagher said. “But you have to credit UMass Lowell. They’ve done that to a lot of people, and they have a style that’s frustrating because they’re undersized.”

“We finally said toward the end that we’re just going to put it inside and let Mark (Nwakamma) go. We finally got it going.”