UMass unable to put away UMass-Lowell in 85-80 loss

River Hawks backcourt combines for 43 points

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Dylan Nguyễn/Daily Collegian (2022)

By Dean Wendel, Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team began the season off most peoples’ radars. Within a month, the team had seen itself fly up rankings, enter national conversations and even sneak into a few bracketologies. Hype was building, but it can’t last forever.

The Minutemen (7-2) learned that the hard way Thursday night as they fell 85-80 to a similarly surging UMass Lowell squad. After an early home loss to Towson, the Minutemen’s six-game win streak ended by the hands of the River Hawks (10-1).

After attendance numbers dipped for Monday’s showdown with Albany, they rose up again to 3,720 for the in-state matchup, which is still more than all but one home game last season. That 3,720 felt like much more at times, as UMass hit a flurry of shots in the second half to bring what was once a 15-point UMass-Lowell lead down to as little as one.

“[Thursday night] was the first time since I’ve [coached] here where I actually feel the crowd behind me,” Minutemen coach Frank Martin said. “I hadn’t felt it before, but I felt it today.”

The Mullins Center tried to build hype, but this time, it never completely came.

Seemingly every time the Minutemen hit a big second-half shot, the River Hawks responded with a silencer of their own. Specifically, there was an instance in the second half in which UMass fans felt a deja vu of sorts. With 6:45 remaining, after Matt Cross made a contested layup to bring the Lowell lead down to three, senior guard Everette Hammond hit a corner three fourteen seconds later to bring the River Hawks’ lead back up to six.

A minute and a half earlier, Hammond hit the same shot, from the same corner, in nearly the same situation. Those were deafening counterpunches for the Minutemen, who clawed their way back into the game with an efficient second-half offense. While UMass shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half, it wasn’t enough. During the same period, Lowell shot 69 percent.

The bulk of a high-volume Lowell offense stemmed from 5-feet-11-inch point guard Ayinde Hikim. The senior scored a career-high 23 points from all areas of the court, using exceptional shot creation and a tight handle to have his way with the Minutemen backcourt.

The only blemish on his stat line was eight turnovers; this can be excused more so than other performances when seeing what he provided for the River Hawk offense. His backcourt mate, Hammond, had 20 points of his own, shooting 6-of-12 from the floor and 4-of-7 from the arc.

“That point guard [Hikim]. We can’t guard,” Martin said. “If your point guard can’t guard their point guard, you got no chance. And we just couldn’t guard. And the problem was even when we went zone, other people couldn’t guard [Hakim].”

For UMass, Matt Cross led the offense, scoring 19 points, going 8-of-8 from the line. During the Minutemen’s second-half comeback, Cross scored nine points in a row, showcasing improved decision-making and vision while energizing a then-stagnant offense.

Another bright spot for UMass — primarily in the second half — was freshman Keon Thompson. With starting point guard Noah Fernandes hurt, Thompson had to assume a larger workload. After a shaky first half, the guard turned it on towards the end of the game, facilitating the offense with great success. Thompson finished going 4-of-10 from the floor, but he made his final three shots.

While the game didn’t offer the best result for the Minutemen, Martin remains positive for the road ahead. To fans, Martin said “Just stick with us, we [are] going to figure this out. We got good dudes, and we’re going to work and we’re not going away. … We need our fans to understand that we’re in this journey until the finish line.”

The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Minutemen, as their next game is against Hofstra on Sunday at the Barclays Center.

Dean Wendel can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @DeanWende1.