Ugly Start Leads to Series Split Between UVM and UML
286 days. That’s how long Vermont had to wait before they could officially take the court and start their season. That prolongated offseason clearly took its toll on the Catamounts, as Vermont looked dreadful early on out of the gates. To be fair, Vermont’s early struggles were to be expected, but unfortunately the lack of a proper preseason and no non-conference schedule ended up costing the Cats an invaluable conference game.
Neither game was particularly exciting to watch. Both teams struggled mightily to find their footing at times and the pace of play came to a screeching halt every 30 seconds due to the overwhelming amount of whistles. Shit, my ears are still ringing after all that. Basketball is reliant on flow and rhythm and neither team could find any, as it was a stop-and-go affair the whole way.
Vermont would go on to split the series with UMass-Lowell. Credit to the River Hawks who held on late to earn their just their third win against the Catamounts since joining the America East in 2013. Vermont bounced back in game two, but again it was far from a pretty win. Better to win ugly than lose pretty I suppose. Let’s break down the games.
Vermont vs UMass-Lowell – Game 1
Yikes. There’s no sugar-coating it, Vermont looked pretty horrid to begin the game. They struggled mightily in nearly every facet of the game. Wide-open looks not falling, earant passes leading to turnovers, miscommunication on defensive assignments. The list goes on.
The River Hawks had their fair-share of similar problems, but cliche as this sounds, they were able to stay ahead of the Cats simply because they made their shots and Vermont didn’t. The referees were aggressive with their whistles all night, as both teams had to quickly adjust their line-ups due to foul trouble. Obadiah Noel, who leads the River Hawks with 19.5 points a game, had to ride the bench early after picking up two quick fouls.
As of this moment, Noel has to be considered a strong favorite for America East Player of the Year, so to lose him early on was a huge blow for the River Hawks. Except it actually wasn’t. Vermont couldn’t capitalize with one of the best players in the conference forced to ride the pine. Noel finished the first-half with 0 points, yet Vermont still trailed headed into the break.
At the start of the second-half, Noel was back on the court and did exactly what you expect from, picking up a quick 12 points and stretching the River Hawks lead. Noel would later pick up two more fouls and be forced to sit for most of the second-half, but Vermont still couldn’t take advantage.
The Catamounts made a short run behind the sheer will and determination of Justin Mazzulla. His energy and hustle helped the Cats claw back into the game, but the abundance of whistles kept the Cats from gaining any serious momentum. The Cat’s struggles from the field carried over to the charity stripe as well, as Vermont finished 15-25 from the line.
You could find a laundry list of reasons and excuses as to why Vermont played so poorly. Frankly, it comes to execution and Vermont just couldn’t execute offensively when they needed it the most. Much like Noel, Stef Smith also played sparingly due to foul trouble, leaving Vermont without a true scorer to lean on with the game hanging in the balance.
Vermont dropped game one to UMass-Lowell (65-73). Here’s some of the more noteworthy stats:
Stef Smith – 18 points, 4 rebounds, 4 turnovers, 5 fouls, 5-12 shooting
Justin Mazzulla – 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 turnovers, 4 fouls, 7-11 shooting
Team Stats – 15-25 FT, 8-26 3PT, 16 turnovers, 21 fouls, 21-51 shooting
Considering how close the game was the poor free-throw shooting is a killer. Actually the poor shooting across the board was really what did the Cats in. Smith hit two threes to begin the game, but Vermont shot a putrid 6-24 following that, including an ugly 1-12 run after those shots from Smith.
Mazzulla was seemingly everywhere for the Cats and almost single-handedly brought them back. Vermont beat UMass-Lowell in terms of 50/50 balls and rebounding in large due to Mazzulla’s high-pace energy. What’s tough is that for how ugly of a game this was, Vermont had a chance to steal a win, but just couldn’t hit those point blank shots.
UMass-Lowell River Hawks
Ron Mitchell – *24 points, 10 rebounds, 3 turnovers, 1 foul, 9-12 shooting *career high
Obadiah Noel – 17 points, 2 rebounds, 1 turnover, 4 fouls, 5-10 shooting
Team Stats – 16-25 FT, 11-23 3PT, 15 turnovers, 25 fouls, 23-48 shooting
For as bad as the Catamounts were, UMass-Lowell was right there with them in many aspects. The River Hawks committed more fouls, lost the battle on the glass (29-34) and were roughly neck-and-neck with the Cats in free-throw shooting and turnovers. Yet, UMass-Lowell never trailed in this game.
Mitchell had himself a day, finishing with a career high 24 points and 6-8 from beyond the arc. His lights out shooting was a huge reason behind the River Hawks upset win over Vermont. Every Batman needs a Robin and the River Hawks might have found theirs in Ron Mitchell.
Vermont vs UMass-Lowell – Game 2
After coming out flat in game one how would Vermont respond? The back-to-back games leave very little time to review film and make adjustments, as Vermont was staring at a potential 0-2 conference start. The Cats needed to find their footing and find it fast.
Game two started in an almost identical fashion to that of game one. Poor shooting, no inside presence offensively, and lots and lots of fouls. Is it already Groundhog Day? Stef Smith was forced to bench early – his 1st half statline? 2 points, 3 fouls.
Again, Vermont was able to manipulate the River Hawks defense into getting open looks, but their point-blank shots just weren’t falling. Luckily, as Vermont’s offense was struggling, their defense was surging. The Cats did a much better job in terms of communicating, switching defensive assignments, and limiting the River Hawks production on the perimeter.
However, both teams will likely point to referees as the culprit behind the lack of any flow to the game. John Becker picked a technical foul before the end of the half and Pat Duquette came close to receiving one himself later in the second half. The ticky-tack fouls were called both ways all night and at some point if you’re the referees you have to just let the boys play.
Vermont led 8-7 fairly early, but couldn’t do much offensively, including going 0-9 from deep in the first half. At the end of one Vermont found themselves down again, 22 to 27.
Something finally clicked for the Catamounts at the half, as they came out a seemingly new team and were able to finally execute offensively. With Smith still battling foul trouble, it was Mazzulla once again who led the charge for the Cats. He was making plays all over the court, from attacking the basket on one side to forcing a charge on the other, Mazzulla was making his impact known.
However, as the Cats made their run it still was far from perfect. They still missed a number of wide-open shots and struggled mightily from the perimeter. Their first three-pointer of the day came with just over 13 minutes left from Eric Beckett. In fact, Beckett and Nick Fiorillo were the only Catamounts to connect from deep all game. Huh?
Unfortunately for UMass-Lowell, they felt the sting of the whistle much worse than Vermont. The Cats took advantage of this being attacking the basket every chance they could. What ended up costing Vermont a chance at victory in game one actually helped them seal a win in game two. The Catamounts seemingly lived at the free-throw line in game two, shooting a much improved 22-26 from the stripe.
On the other end of the floor, UMass-Lowell only shot 12 free-throws all game and couldn’t match their lights-out perimeter shooting from a night ago. They were on the receiving end of some pretty absurd calls, but the River Hawks were very undisciplined all night, committing 29(!) fouls.
Mid-way through the second-half was when Vermont was finally able to break away from UMass-Lowell. The Cats kept the River Hawks at bay, maintaining a 7-11 point cushion for much of the second-half. Vermont secured the win (62-53), splitting the series with UMass-Lowell.
Despite the win, the Cats still have a lot of work ahead of them and need to seriously clean up their shooting. Next up is NJIT, who will be making their first trip to Burlington, as Vermont gets their first look at another potential America East Player of the Year candidate in guard Zach Cooks.
Here’s some interesting notes and stats from game two:
Ben Shungu – 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2 turnovers, 1 foul, 3-7 shooting (8-8 FT)
Stef Smith – 10 points, 3 rebounds, 3 turnovers, 4 fouls, 2-5 shooting (4-4 FT)
Team Stats – 22-26 FT, 2-17 3PT, 11 turnovers, 17 fouls, 19-54 shooting
Not exactly what you would call a barn-burner. Shungu and Smith were the only Catamounts to reach double-figures, but numerous other Cats chipped in, such as Mazulla (8), Bailey Patella (9), Isaiah Powell (7) and even Nick Fiorillo (7). The aforementioned free-throw shooting essentially won the game for the Cats, but there’s a serious issue with their perimeter shooting. 10-45 from deep in two games is not good to put it lightly. A lot of them were good looks as well, just not falling. Hopefully this was just an anomaly and not a trend.
The heroes of game two were without a doubt Shungu and Mazzulla. Shungu looked ok in game one, but really found his footing in game two, as he was at the hips of Ron Mitchell and Obadiah Noel all game forcing them to take tough contested shots. Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald urges his players to BYOJ (Bring Your Own Juice) and that’s exactly what Mazzulla has done in these past two games. His primal screams are rivaled only by that of Bailey Patella. At one point all you could hear was Mazzulla belting out “Wooooo’s!”. You’d think Ric Flair was out on the court.
UMass-Lowell River Hawks
Obadiah Noel – 18 points, 2 rebounds, 6 turnovers, 4 fouls, 7-10 shooting
Ron Mitchell – 15 points, 5 rebonds, 3 turnovers, 1 foul, 5-11 shooting
Team Stats – 8-12 FT, 7-18 3PT, 21 turnovers, 29 fouls, 19-46 shooting
Noel and Mitchell once again led the way for the River Hawks. Mitchell cooled off a bit, but still finished 4-8 from deep. For Noel, this was the 32 straight game that he’s been able to hit the double-figure mark. An impressive feat at any level of collegiate basketball.
The River Hawks ultimate undoing was their undisciplined style of play. Yes, UMass-Lowell definitely was on the receiving end of some bad calls, but part of the blame falls on Pat Duquette who should’ve adjusted his play calling based on the referees quick-twitch whistle. Max Brooks and Greg Hammond each fouled out, while Noel and Bryce Daley each got slapped with 4 fouls. Vermont was letting UMass-Lowell hang around due to their poor shooting, but the River Hawks couldn’t get into any sort of flow or rhythm, as it was seemingly one whistle after another.
UMass-Lowell travels to Stony Brook next. The Seawolves swept Binghamton (2-0) and will look to continue their hot start in America East Play.