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River Hawks among the Elite

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.



LOWELL Three sets of Costello Gymnasium nets down, one souvenir from Florida to go.  It was the same old routine for the UMass Lowell men's basketball team last night in what has suddenly become the area's hoop hot spot, the home of the River Hawks: Win the game, bring out the ladder and cut down the nylon.

The River Hawks' net-cutting ceremony made its third engagement in the last three weeks as UMass Lowell systematically took care of C.W. Post, 69-59, in the Division 2 Northeast Region Tournament championship game. It's become such a regular occurrence that even left-handed point guard Dana Jones has learned the art of using right-handed scissors.

This time, however, the jubilation was different. A mere post-game celebration couldn't tell the story of where UMass Lowell has been, or where it is going.

"Our goal is four nets," said UMass Lowell coach Ken Barer. "Regular season champions, conference tournament champions, regional champions and national champions. We're not looking forward to that next one yet, but we sure are going to enjoy this."

The final pair of nets that the River Hawks have their sights set on dismantling reside in the Lakeland Center in Lakeland, Fla., the home of the tournament's Elite Eight. That quest won't begin until Wednesday, March 26, when UMass Lowell takes on South Atlantic champ Bowie State in a national quarterfinal game.

Until then UMass Lowell will soak in what it has accomplished. By beating the Pioneers, not only have the River Hawks reached tournament heights only previously accomplished by the school's 1987-88 national championship team, but they have also earned the title as winningest team in the program's history (28 wins).

The game itself wasn't all that different from the previous five straight post-season wins the River Hawks had notched in the Northeast-10 and NCAA Tournaments. The Pioneers learned the same lesson as Franklin Pierce, Assumption, Southern N.H., St. Rose and Bridgeport before them there is no easy way to approach UMass Lowell.

Unflinchingly playing their regular nine-man rotation, the River Hawks did just enough to keep the second-seeded Pioneers at arm's length for most of the game. With Uri Grunwald limiting the shot selection of Post's outside threat, Ryan Bucci, and Ty Brunson holding his own against 6-foot-6 post players Reuben Statam and Neville Storer, UMass Lowell entered halftime with a 36-28 lead.

The problem for UMass Lowell was its inability to put the Pioneers away, allowing C.W. Post to crawl within three points with five minutes to play. At that point Barer called a timeout, allowing his players to regain their focus on a potential trip to Central Florida.

"We had to take our time and relax. We were smelling it, but there was still four minutes to go," explained the tournament's MVP, Jones, who joined Grunwald in notching a team-high 14 points.

Along with UML's renewed vigor, Barer mixed in the key strategic move of switching to a zone defense. The combination allowed UMass Lowell to net the next nine points, not allowing C.W. Post to score a hoop until a Bucci three-pointer with 48 seconds left made the score 68-59 in favor of the hosts.

Also helping key the River Hawks' domination in the final minutes was the all-over-the-court defense of the player with the most wins in UMass Lowell history, senior Shahar Nachmias. The former member of the Israeli special forces finished with five steals while tying Bobby Licare's program record for most games played (120).

"We knew if we were going to win it was going to be because of defense," said Barer. "I heard Shahar say, 'We've got to prove it now!' When you get a guy like Shaq not only talking the talk but walking the walk, it sure helps and everybody responded."

The performance wasn't the prettiest of UMass Lowell's 32 games, as its 21 turnovers will attest, but it will allow the likes of Barer, Jeff Rafferty and Casey Cowburn to take a deep breath. It was the two UML assistant coaches who had secured tapes of every one of the region's teams well before the tournament's first game, and were angling for information on Bowie State right after the final buzzer last night.

"I can't tell you what's going to happen down in Florida," said Barer. "But I will tell you that we will be prepared as anybody."