By Dan Gardella
Fairfield – They say growing up hurts. It is difficult to go through a new adjustment period. However, everyone goes through it.
Especially a team with eight freshmen.
Sacred Heart saw a ten-point lead with 4:39 slip away in regulation and made careless plays in overtime to ultimately sink the Pioneers as UMass Lowell escaped with the 100-91 victory Saturday afternoon.
“We made some poor decisions as a team,” Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina said. “We didn’t make plays that needed to be made if you are going to win a game. Winning a game is tough. You have to play for a full 40 minutes.”
The Pioneers, fresh off of a drubbing from Big East opponent St. John’s returned home for the first time in more than a month and only played their third home game of the season. They certainly started off a bit slow. Although battling to tie things up a few times in the early going, Sacred Heart would fail to grab a lead. Instead, they found themselves down six, six minutes into the game.
Along with competing against the River Hawks, the Pioneers would battle the whistle all game. Constant foul calls would plague some of their key players and force Anthony Latina’s hand to go to his bench earlier than expected.
With big men EJ Anosike and Jare’l Spellman in foul trouble early on, freshman Zach Pfaffenberger was called upon to provide depth down low. After checking in five minutes into the game, the forward would score four points and swat away a shot soon after.
He would have an impact to say the least.
From there, the Pioneers, with Pfaffenberger providing a spark, would exhibit the style of play that would help them sit atop the NEC in scoring, using extra passes, a fast tempo, and smart plays to knot things up again, this time at 18 with eleven minutes to play in the opening half.
Although the lift off the bench was impactful, Sacred Heart would still struggle to get a lead over the River Hawks. They would not however allow UMass Lowell to get the lead out of hand.
Behind the gritty play of Pfaffenberger and others, the Pioneers would take their first lead of the game at the 4:38 mark of the first half on a layup by the forward to give Sacred Heart a 32-31 lead. While the lead would remain momentarily, Anthony Latina’s team would carry the 42-41 lead into the locker room.
In the second half, it seemed that Sacred Heart could do no wrong. With momentum on their side, the Pioneers would not trail early on. Instead, they would execute to almost perfection and stretch the lead to ten on numerous occasions.
But youth can lead to inexperience.
With 3:45 to play and Sacred Heart leading 81-71, freshman Cameron Parker attempted a pass the full length of the court which was intercepted and resulted in a three from Ryan Jones to trim the deficit.
UMass Lowell would take this possible five-point swing and use the momentum to propel themselves back into the game. The River Hawks used the Jones three-pointer as part of a 11-1 run over the final four minutes to send the game into overtime, highlighted by the only three-pointer of the game for redshirt-senior Josh Gantz from the top of the key to knot things at 82.
“I told them that we’ve been down before on the road,” UMass Lowell forward Christian Lutete said. “But we’re tough. Just stick with it. I think we stuck with it really well.”
The overtime period was merely a layover of the conclusion of regulation. The River Hawks scored the first nine points of the extra session while Sacred Heart turned the ball over on their first five possessions to ultimately seal their fate.
“We got carless,” Latina said. “So we had some bad turnovers which led to easy baskets for them.”
Fight as they might, the Pioneers would not be able to overcome the deficit as they would fall to UMass Lowell for the second time this season.
On one end it’s disappointing. On the other end, it’s a win that was a little more difficult to get.
“Things just weren’t going our way,” UMass Lowell head coach Pat Duquette said. “I didn’t think our effort wasn’t there. We were working really hard. They just kept playing and believing in the right way. We began to knock down some shots and our defense got energy from that.”
Koreem Ozier led the Pioneers (4-9) with 20 points, his third 20+ point outing in his first four career college games. Sean Hoehn had 16, and Pfaffenberger, who helped Sacred Heart in more than one way, had a career-high 13.
“He was great,” Latina said about Pfaffenberger. “Obviously EJ (Anosike) and Jare’l (Spellman) are the horses for us, but in retrospect, we probably need him to come back because he was playing with so much more energy.”
UMass Lowell was led by Christian Lutete, who followed his career-high 34 points against Loyola with a 29 point outburst Saturday afternoon. Obadiah Noel pitched in with 22 of his own.
“Christian was huge for us,” Noel said. “He is very aggressive. He’s a natural scorer and he hustles. People don’t realize that. He gets a lot of rebounds for us. It’s really big when he comes in and does that.”