By Matt Langone
LOWELL -- Throughout his illustrious basketball career at UMass Lowell, Antonio Bivins has been known to dunk here and there. But the senior saved his best and most resounding throwdown for last.
With less than two minutes remaining in UMass Lowell's inaugural season in Division 1, and with the remarkably successful River Hawks rolling to yet another victory, Bivins came streaking down the left sideline all alone after a steal at mid-court.
Maine 6-foot-7 forward Kilian Cato tried to cut off Bivins' angle and meet him at the hoop -- not the best idea. The 6-foot-5 Bivins rose up and hammered down a thunderous left-handed dunk, knocking Cato to the floor and sending nearly 700 fans at Costello Athletic Center into a frenzy.
It served as the emphatic punctuation on an 84-72 UMass Lowell victory over America East Conference foe Maine, as the River Hawks closed out the season in style.
"I knew that this was going to be my last game ever putting on a UMass Lowell uniform," said Bivins, who had 24 points, 12 rebounds and three steals in an inspired effort. "So, I just wanted to give my teammates everything I had, whether it's diving for a loose ball, taking a charge, or that dunk. I just wanted to leave it all on the floor and go out with a win, because it's not often that a college player gets a win in your last game."
After completing the season sweep of Maine, UML finished the season 10-18 and 8-8 in the America East. There's no question that the team surpassed the typical expectations of a first-year D1 program. Even first-year head coach Pat Duquette finally admitted he never saw this coming from his team, which started 1-11.
"I'll admit, now that it's over, we exceeded my expectations," said Duquette. "I've said a bunch of times that we never talked about wins or losses, and I think that was the right approach. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody that would've guessed that we would win eight America East games.
"It was a great night for everybody -- for our seniors, our basketball program and the university -- to conclude our first Division 1 season with an 8-8 record in the America East and send these seniors off on a real positive note. Just a real exciting night."
Bivins was one of four seniors honored before the opening tip as part of Senior Night. Each played a significant role in earning the win and sending the River Hawks into Year 2 with some momentum.
Point guard Akeem Williams had 12 points, five rebounds and five assists. Forward Kerry Weldon had five points, five assists, four blocks and a sensational two-handed slam on an alley-oop from Williams. And Parris Massey had four points and three rebounds.
"I don't think anything really affected me until today," said Williams, the program's third all-time leading scorer. "All week it was just school, practice, homework, and then today everything just hit me."
Williams was held scoreless in the first half, as UMass Lowell appeared to be overwhelmed by the emotions of playing in the season's final game in front of an energized crowd. The River Hawks trailed 38-35 at the half and allowed Maine to shoot 57.1 percent.
A more relaxed River Hawks squad came out for the second half, and they played with a purpose. After falling behind, 40-35, UML went on a 17-2 run to take command with a 52-42 lead. Maine's leading scorer, guard Xavier Pollard, scored just two of his 15 points in the second half.
"It's expected when it's Senior Night to have those emotions riding too high in the first half," Duquette said. "We certainly handled it much better in the second half and played much better defense, and we got an absolute career night out of Antonio Bivins."
All four UML seniors checked out of the game with 32.9 seconds left, leading 82-67. The seniors embraced in hugs behind the bench.
Weldon and Massey will graduate this spring but still have one more year of playing eligibility. They both could return to the UML team next year. The River Hawks, of course, are not eligible for the America East Tournament or the NCAA Tournament until completing the NCAA-mandated four-year transition period.
"The hardest thing for me about not being able to play in the conference tournament is these guys," Duquette said, pointing to his seniors. "Hopefully I'll be around for a long time, and I knew what I was getting into when I signed up. But these guys have one chance, and I think part of the reason they were so effective in the second half of the season is because they treated every game like it was their last."