UMass men's basketball team opens season with win over UMass Lowell
AMHERST — Five players scored in double figures as the curtain came up on the 2019-20 season for the University of Massachusetts. That three of the double-figure scorers were freshman made coach Matt McCall smile.
"All of those guys, all of those freshmen, I was really proud of what they were able to do tonight," the third-year UMass coach said.
Freshman T.J. Weeks, playing with his father Tyrone in attendance, had a game-high 23 points, while freshmen Sean East II and Tre Mitchell had 11 and 10 points, respectively, as UMass held off a stubborn UMass Lowell team 79-64 at the Mullins Center Tuesday night.
The Minutemen led by as many as eight points in the first half before Pat Duquette's River Hawks cut the lead to 36-33 at halftime. UMass opened the second half with a 17-6 run, holding the River Hawks to one basket and four free throws in that span. While Lowell did cut into the lead, the River Hawks never got really close again.
"I thought we lost to a team that played very well tonight," Duquette said. "We've played here well, traditionally, in the past few years. We've had close games against them. I was hoping for the same. I thought we would give them a little more of a game."
It was the fourth consecutive year that UMass and UMass Lowell played each other in the opener, and the fourth straight win for the Minutemen.
Obadiah Noel had 18 points to lead the River Hawks while Christian Lutete had 17 points and 11 rebounds.
The River Hawks played without Pittsfield's Bryce Daley. The sophomore guard, who had five assists in last year's game here, has been out with a leg injury. Before the game, Duquette said he could not pinpoint when the former Pittsfield High School and Salisbury School standout would be back on the court.
"It's hard to know at this point, when it come to his exact time line or status. We defer to the doctors and our trainer," Duquette said. "We know that he's working incredibly hard on his rehab. There have been signs of encouragement the last couple of months and some improvement. Not as quick as he wants or we want. We knew he was going to be a big part of our season.
"How soon he can come back, we'll just have to see what the doctors say and how he feels."
Daley could only watch as the Minutemen's precocious freshman Weeks took command.
Weeks had a game-high 23 points, scoring 10 in the first half. He was 8 for 12 from the floor, 4 for 6 from 3-point range, and 3 for 4 from the foul line. He had three rebounds, two blocks, two steals and had four turnovers.
"I told him last week that he's not a freshman," McCall said. "You guys can see he doesn't play like one."
The Bishop Hendricken and Woodstock Academy product hit three of his treys in the second half. Each one bigger than the next.
His first came on an assist from Carl Pierre. The River Hawks had just cut a nine-point lead to seven on a pair of free throws by Noel. The 3-pointer was the start of a 9-0 run that upped the lead from seven to 15. Then in the final 2 1/2 minutes, Lowell had trimmed a 11-point lead to six, when Weeks hit back-to-back treys to lock up the victory.
"I'm feeling great, just to go out there and play good in front of my parents, knowing that they went here," Weeks said. "I had the jitters coming in. I was a little nervous in my first game, actually. Once we went back and forth, I started to feel good."
In the preseason McCall said he wanted to see his team press more and be successful at it. For one night, the Minutemen were both. They pressed the River Hawks for much of the game, and forced 18 turnovers. While that happened, UMass recorded 18 assists on 31 made baskets — a pretty good assist-to-turnover ratio.
But what McCall was as happy about as anything was they way his team, made up of seven freshmen, responded to UMass Lowell's pressure. And those seven got a lot of minutes. Five of the freshmen played 14 minutes or more. Weeks played the most at 27 minutes.
"I felt like, in the second half, too, when it got down to four or six, Carl or T.J. just drilled a shot. T.J. was just fearless. Even the one he missed, right in front of me, I thought was in. He missed the one in transition right after he made one," McCall said. "He plays the game with no fear. Our guys were composed when they had to be composed, played the game the right way, were looking for each other. It's a really good team win."
The Minutemen travel to Connecticut on Saturday for a road game against Fairfield. Lowell, meanwhile continues its season-opening three-game road swing Friday night at LIU Brooklyn. Then on Nov. 10, Duquette and the River Hawks will travel to Ohio State.
The coach of "The Flagship" said he was especially pleased with the win, understanding that the River Hawks are going to be a tough out for a lot of teams this year.
"That was a total team win, and one of the best team wins since I've been here. Just in a lot of ways," McCall said. "That's a good basketball team that's going to win a lot of games this year. They're very well coached by Coach Duquette. They have older guys, veteran guys that when they get in their league, that's going to be a tough game for league opponents."
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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