(photo courtesy: UMass Lowell Athletics)

UMass Lowell 85, Hartford 83: Size Not Stopping River Hawks

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – If you walked into Chase Family Arena with five minutes left in Wednesday’s game between UMass Lowell and Hartford, you’d be excused for thinking you’d stumbled upon a high school game.

With George Blagojevic and Jack Hobbs already fouled out, Hartford coach John Gallagher called upon sophomore walk-on Mark Plousis. At 6’5”, Plousis probably played plenty of post at Cardinal O’Hara in Philadelphia (the same high school Gallagher attended), but when he was the tallest player on the floor in a Division I basketball player for either team in crunch time, it was more than a little strange.

Perhaps the happiest guy in the gym was UMass Lowell’s Jahad Thomas, who at 6’2”, has to be one of the smallest post players in the country, and usually has to try to make due against players a half-foot taller than him. On Wednesday, though, he got to pick on guys his own size, and the result was 21 points, including the game-winning basket with 1.8 seconds left as UMass Lowell got another America East win, 85-83.

Size does not necessarily translate into stellar defense, but there is usually a correlation between the two, and plays a role in the fact that the two defenses on display Wednesday were two of the worst 20 in the nation (UMass Lowell 336th, Hartford 345th). It is especially obvious in the two-point shooting defense.

For the River Hawks (8-14, 4-5), it’s become part of who they are. In only their third year in Division I with a couple of seasons to go until they’re NCAA Tournament eligible, finding big guys who are diamonds in the rough is much more difficult than a guy like Thomas, whom almost everyone else passed on. But Pat Duquette has figured out a way to be competitive, Wednesday was UMass Lowell’s third road win in America East (Vermont, UMBC), and their resume also includes wins over Boston College and Cornell, as well as a tight battle against UConn.

“It was nice to actually have a rebounding advantage and not be outsized at every position,” Duquette said. “We’re similar teams in that aspect, a lot of guards on the floor, the floor spaced. In fact, I felt like Jahad Thomas had a clear advantage and we were able to take advantage of that and play through him. He made two tough shots at the end there.”

Hartford has had to deal with being undersized, too, in the past but it has become extreme this season. Already in rebuilding mode to some extent, the Hawks (7-17, 2-7) lost center John Carroll to a knee injury early in the season, leaving them without a true post player, at least with any kind of experience. And so, it’s a struggle right now. UMass Lowell was so excited to see another team with their collective height, it got 18 of the game’s first 21 rebounds (Mark Cornelius, at 6’3”, finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds) and led 28-13 on the scoreboard midway through the first half.

Hartford stormed back in the second half, largely through Pancake Thomas (37 pts.), and briefly took the lead before Thomas’ heroics in the final minute beat them.

“We played in spurts tonight,” Gallagher said. “I don’t know why we started so slow, if I had that answer, we would have won. The game in my opinion was lost in the first seven minutes of the game.”

What else did we learn Wednesday night in West Hartford?:

1)Pancake Thomas is a great America East player

Like Jahad Thomas, Pancake Thomas was able to show he’s more than just a great name. He entered as the second-leading scorer in America East and is now over 20 points per game after Wednesday’s 37-point effort. He’s had to play a post on defense with Hartford’s injuries, but offensively he’s shown he can score in a variety of ways. Against smaller UMass Lowell, he took the ball to the hoop all night, going 15-17 from the free throw line.

2)  Playing out the string

It’s an odd situation for UMass Lowell, who will not be in the postseason, so their season will end in three weeks with a home game against Albany. It’s obviously not unexpected, though, the River Hawks knew what they were getting into as a transitional Division I team, which makes the success they’ve had impressive. The defense needs a bit of work (and size), but UMass Lowell is a remarkable 46th nationally in eFG% (52.9%) and 49th in two-point shooting (52.2%), largely due to Jahad Thomas, who is shooting 58.7% despite taking more than double the two-point attempts of anyone else on the team.

“It’s not exactly what either coach wants. You want to play great defense, but that’s the type of game it was,” Duquette said. “There were a lot of free throws, guys driving to the basket, so if that’s the style of game it’s going to be, we have to answer and I think our guys did just enough. I don’t think these guys know any different. They’ve been great. This is now our third year coming to compete for the right reasons and not worrying that we’re not postseason eligible, especially this time of year.”

3) Hartford with an eye toward 2016-17

This has become a bit of a lost season for Hartford, who – as I mentioned earlier – was probably going to have to rebuild anyway. It stinks a bit for Pancake Thomas, who like Khallid Hart for Marist, Cedric Kuakumensah for Brown, and many others in college basketball, probably won’t get the attention they deserve.

Lost in the final score was the Hartford comeback (down 15 early in the second half). In fact, the Hawks led 82-81 with 47 seconds left when Jalen Ross appeared to get fouled only to have the officials say he hooked his defender on the way by, a strange call in that position. Jahad Thomas scored four quick points and it was another loss.

“You’re trying to figure out some way to get a stop. To their credit, they made one more play,’ Gallagher said. “We thought we had a layup and they called an offensive foul that would have put us up three with 47 seconds left, but that’s how it goes.”

One of the big positives was Plousis, who had never played more than six minutes in a game before, but with Hartford undermanned, struggling, and probably with an eye toward next season when they should have Pancake Thomas, John Carroll back, and 6’10” Egyptian JUCO transfer Hassan Attia to add to their size in the middle, Gallagher called on him in the first half and down the stretch.

“Every day in practice he’s bringing a phenomenal attitude,” Gallagher said. “You know, when you’re down 15 and there’s no energy, you have to shake things up. When he went into the game, it was like a light came on for us. I knew how hard he was going to play. He really understands what his role is, and where we are long-term, we have a lot of great pieces for next year.”