River Hawks hitting their stride

The turning point in UMass-Lowell’s first season at the Division I level was an 18-point loss to Duquesne.

Though the Dukes dropped the River Hawks to 1-11 overall and 0-10 against D-I opponents, the game was the team’s first at home in the Tsongas Center after eight of the first 12 came on the road and the three other home dates were in the Costello Athletic Center.

“I really feel like that provided a nice emotional lift for our guys, because we had played so many games on the road against tough opponents,” UML coach Pat Duquette said by phone Thursday. “We also knew the toughest part of our schedule was behind us.”

Except for a Feb. 3 game against the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders, the rest of the River Hawks’ schedule will be against America East opponents. And though the league includes tough teams like Hartford, Vermont and Saturday’s opponent, Stony Brook, Duquette feels his undersized roster can compete in the AE.

And after a two-week break around the holidays, the River Hawks got a gift when senior guard Antonio Bivins -- who UML feared was lost for the season with an Achilles injury -- returned to the lineup for the game against UMBC.

“He came back and started practicing in November and just felt really good,” Duquette said. “The doctors cleared him and I just brought him in and gave him both scenarios and let him make the decision.”

The options were to sit out the season, take a medical redshirt and play a full season in 2014-15, or to come back midseason in 2013-14 and finish up his career as the River Hawks start their run as a Division I team.

“It really was his choice and he decided to come back and play this year,” Duquette said.

The River Hawks are glad he did, as the 6-foot-5, 175-pound Miami, Fla., native came off the bench on Jan. 5 and scored 14 points in 26 minutes to help UML beat UMBC for its first Division I win.

“I just think it was one of those special moments that coaches share with their players,” Duquette said. “We all knew what we had gone through, all the tough moments and tough opponents. The [players] stayed together, they persevered and didn’t quit and we made it to the point in our season that we had more winnable games.”

Then UML beat Binghamton in its next game. And beat Albany in overtime in the game after that, and all of a sudden UMass-Lowell has its first win streak.

Bivins has averaged 13.3 points -- good for second on the team behind fellow senior Akeem Williams’ 15.2 PPG -- in the three games, providing scoring and another veteran presence off the bench.

Duquette said he doesn’t know if he will keep Bivins in a reserve role or move him to the starting lineup.

“I don’t know that it matters,” he said. “He’s gonna play starters’ minutes and he’s probably gonna be playing important minutes at the end of games.

“Some of it’s just gonna be determined by how he feels.”

So far, so good on that, as Bivins hasn’t been bothered by the Achilles.

At 4-11 overall and 3-1 in the America East, the River Hawks are tied with Stony Brook for the most wins in the conference to date, with a 7 p.m. ET tip with the Seawolves on deck.

Oh, what a difference a three-game win streak can make.

“We’re in a different position and we’ve never been in this position before,” Duquette said of the conference success. “I think it’s important to just continue along the same mindset that we’ve had: to not get too caught up in the wins and losses, and work and focus on getting better every day. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

If Duquette and the River Hawks do that, there just may be more wins to celebrate in this inaugural Division I season.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.