Watching the America East Conference tournament from the stands last weekend, UMass Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner said all he could think about was how competitive his team would have been.
"Stony Brook is in the championship game, and we were so close against them," he said after returning from Albany. "We had a field goal to tie the game with seven seconds to go."
That game, which took place on Jan. 18, was the first time UMass Lowell and Stony Brook had ever played each other as teams of the same conference. Stony Brook won 70-65, one of several games that came right down to the wire for the River Hawks in their first season of Division 1 basketball.
Boston University's departure from the America East Conference last year opened the door for UMass Lowell to enter, and the school was officially named an America East member on July 1, 2013. Lowell basketball scrambled to put a schedule together in just three short months, resulting in a lot of tough games on the road. Playing teams like Michigan and Cincinnati, Lowell started off the season rocky at 1-11. But in-conference play suited the River Hawks better, and they rallied to go 9-7 in their final 16 games, finishing 8-8 in the America East, good for fifth place in the nine-team conference.
"They definitely exceeded expectations," said Skinner. "One of the things I think (coach Pat Duquette) and his staff did awfully well is, when you're going through a transition like this and you're starting with all Division II student athletes, it can be very easy as coaches to put all of your focus on the future -- recruiting and trying to get athletes that can compete at the Division I level. Pat and his staff did a terrific job of coaching the kids that were in front of them."
'SOMETHING TO PROVE'
With three key seniors, the kids who were in front of coach Duquette -- who was hired in March 2013 -- had talent. Senior guard Akeem Williams scored 442 points this season, leading the River Hawks to victory in several key instances and reaching 2,000 points for his college career.
"I know for myself and the other seniors, we went into every game with something to prove," Williams said. "We wanted to prove to these schools that kind of passed us up that we can play at this level."
But that level of play took some getting used to.
"After we played our out-of-conference games, we started to get the whole Division-1 feel -- the way the game is played and the speed of it," Williams said. "I think it definitely helped us out when we got into our conference games."
The River Hawks won't be eligible for postseason play for another three years, a frustrating prospect as the postseason would have been sweet this season, says Williams.
"We were watching the Stony Brook-Hartford game on Sunday, and I remember us saying to each other if we had an opportunity to play, we could have won at least one game and caused a little bit of havoc in the next," Williams said with a laugh. "So it was a little disappointing, but we knew the situation going in."
Skinner said of these next few years awaiting postseason eligibility, when he looks back he suspects this season will be the one he would have most wanted to realize a postseason dream.
"Having some talented seniors is helpful come tournament time," he said.
And while this year's transition was a challenge, Skinner says next year will be the real test.
"We had the benefit of those seniors this year; they won't have that next year," he said. "Next year will be a different challenge for the coaches, it's going to be a freshman-laden team and so next year really starts the rebuilding process."
Sophomore DJ Mlachnik says the players who will still be around next season have big shoes to fill.
"We only have two or three key contributors coming back, so it will be in our hands to lead the way for all these new guys," said Mlachnik. "This year we really wanted to prove to our new coaches that we belong here, so I think next year it will just be exciting to show those incoming guys the type of work ethic that has gotten this program here."
With his first year coaching at UMass Lowell deemed a success, Duquette says the team's record from this year will certainly help recruiting efforts for next year. And in addition to building off that success, Duquette says he has another key recruiting tool in his belt: the Tsongas Center.
"It's going to be arguably the best facility in the America East," Duquette said. "It's a huge selling point."
Acquired from the city of Lowell several years ago, UMass Lowell's Tsongas Center has been renovated into one of the top hockey and basketball venues in the Northeast region, seating 7,000 and overlooking the Merrimack River.
Duquette and the River Hawks basketball team played only a few games there this year, as they're still transitioning out of their other facility, the Costello Athletic Center. And in a year when a cramped scheduling process created a lot of away games, playing in a new facility didn't exactly feel like a homecoming.
"It kind of felt like another away game at times," Williams said with a laugh. "I think early on we had a little bit of jitters playing there and getting used to that crowd. But it's a really beautiful facility, and I think when we start to play more there in the future it's going to become a home advantage and it will serve us very well."
Two of the River Hawks' games in the Tsongas Center were played while the students at UMass Lowell were on their winter break, leaving some on the team to wonder just how empty the large facility was going to feel without the support of their fellow students.
"The crowd support was actually a lot better than I expected," Williams said. "Just knowing how much it seats compared to Costello's gymnasium, we didn't expect much. But the city of Lowell did a great job coming out and supporting us, and it definitely was filled when we played there."
In their most attended game, River Hawks basketball attracted as many as 4,000 fans to the Tsongas Center, a noticeable improvement over what they were attracting as a D2 team, Duquette said.
UMass Lowell hockey has been D1 since 1984. Now a major player in the America East, an average River Hawks hockey game at the Tsongas Center attracts 5,300 fans, and some of the bigger games will reach the center's capacity of 7,000. In that regard, say players and staff, UMass Lowell basketball has a guiding light to lead the way, even if that light is reflecting off an icy surface.
"We knew from the beginning that the campus was behind hockey 100 percent, but that gave us something else to prove -- that we belonged in the Tsongas Center, too," said Williams. "I can remember early this year, walking through campus just listening to students talking about how they didn't think we'd win a game and how we were going to get crushed against Michigan, things like that. We just wanted to prove to everyone that we can play in this league, and I think along the way, the hockey fans caught on."