HARTFORD, CONN. >> Before Pat Duquette walked away from the dais in the press room at the XL Center last Sunday, he had one last thing to say after his UMass-Lowell men's basketball team endured a nine-point loss to the University of Connecticut.
"We earned the right to feel good about ourselves because of the way we played," he said, responding to a question about moral victories. "Our guys always want to win, so they're disappointed. We played well. We can go home for the holiday break and feel good about ourselves."
The 88-79 loss to then 25th-ranked UConn dropped the River Hawks' record to 4-7. Included in the seven losses are games at Northwestern and Notre Dame, but in the four wins is a victory at Boston College.
Duquette is in his third season at the UMass Lowell helm. The Dalton native, who graduated from Wahconah and Williams College, said that while he wouldn't mind having more wins, all is going well.
"How can it not be fun? We're coaching basketball," he said prior to last Sunday's game at Hartford. "It's a blast.
"I'm working with assistant coaches who I've known for a long time and have a lot of respect for. My guys are fun to be around. Most days, I come into work and I'm having a great time."
The River Hawks took the holiday weekend off, and return to play on Monday night at Rutgers of the Big 10. Their next home game is Jan. 6 against America East Conference foe Hartford.
Coming into the season Duquette has a career 26-41 coaching record. That figure included a 1-11 start two years ago. That season turned into one to remember as the River Hawks finished 10-18 and an impressive 8-8 in America East.
"I think we've had more success than anyone thought we would. The people I talked to when I got the job weren't very optimistic about how much success we'd have in the short term," he said. "Everybody, including myself, felt [Lowell] had a ton of potential and the ingredients were there to build a successful program.
"Most people thought it was going to be a really painful first two years. It hasn't been."
UMass Lowell assistant coach Biko Paris probably knows Duquette as well as anybody on the Lowell campus. Paris is in his third year as an assistant under Duquette.
"When he first got the job, I asked him 'Are you going to yell at these kids?' As an assistant, he never yelled at us at all," Paris said before the UConn game. "It's not really his thing."
There are only two seniors on the UMass Lowell roster, which means that the rest of the players on the team didn't play until Duquette arrived on campus. His first recruit, redshirt sophomore forward Jahad Thomas, missed that first season because of a knee injury.
Thomas, an All-State player from Williamsport, Pa., said that the biggest difference in Duquette from then to now is that with higher expectations comes a little more "getting on guys more."
But other than that, Thomas said Duquette is still the same.
"Coach Duquette hasn't changed since I met him," said the forward, who had 19 points, five rebounds and seven assists in the 88-79 loss at UConn. "He's the same guy. He keeps it real with you. Since Day One, nothing has changed."
Assistant coach Nick Leonardelli agrees with that assessment.
"He's not different at all. He's still great to work with," said Leonardelli. "Our staff has a great dynamic. They really enjoy working for him and working with him. Our players also have a great relationship with him.
"That's one of the things he's stressed since Day One was building relationship[s and doing everything through trust. That hasn't changed at all."
Duquette's staff all have relationships with their boss. Paris and assistant coach Louis Hinnant were both recruited by Duquette to play at Boston College. Director of operations Tom O'Shea was Duquette's boss at Saint Michael's College, while Leonardelli came to Lowell from Bucknell, where he worked for former Williams head coach Dave Paulsen.
The River Hawks will play three league home games at the Tsongas Center this year, including a Feb. 24 matchup with UAlbany.
Duquette also said that he is trying to finalize a game or series with Derek Kellogg at UMass in Amherst.
"I think it would be great for both programs in the UMass system if we could work something out," said Duquette.
The future continues to look up for UMass Lowell. That's because the River Hawks have one more year in NCAA purgatory.
Since moving from Division II, Duquette's team — and the rest of the UMass Lowell athletic department — was stuck in a four-year reclassification period that saw it ineligible for America East and NCAA postseason play. The River Hawks will be eligible beginning in 2017-18. The players who are recruited to play in Lowell this fall will be in purgatory for one year.
The River Hawks have been improving each season, and last week, were in a two-possession game against UConn with 1:27 left in regulation. But Omar Calhoun went 4 for 4 from the foul line to ice the victory.
"We're not sneaking up on anybody any more," said Duquette, referring to his team's standing in America East.
"I don't think it's been any secret that it's been a top-heavy league for a while," he said. "Albany, Stony Brook, Vermont have dominated the top of the league."
And that's where Pat Duquette wants to be.
"It's almost made it harder because nobody's taking us lightly," he said. "They know we're going to come to play."