UMass Lowell had been a Division II power – winning the national title in 1988 – but since becoming a D-I program nine years ago, it has never had a winning season. In that time it’s lost to the likes of Ohio State (three times), UConn (twice), Michigan, Cincinnati, Indiana, Notre Dame and 10 of the 11 Atlantic 10 teams it had played.
Lowell did beat Fordham in 2014 and last season it toppled No. 93 San Francisco by eight.
Saturday night’s victory over the Flyers was bigger than either of those.
“This is our biggest (D-I) win ever,” Faison said.
And more than anyone it was thanks to him. He hit three straight three-pointers in a span of 91 seconds down the stretch -- part of his game-high 21 points – and that not only lifted his team back into the lead, but silenced the sold-out, roaring UD crowd that so often lifts the Flyers in times like this.
“My teammates kept feeding me, telling me to shoot, and by the end, the basket felt pretty big to me,” said Faison, who had five three pointers on the night.
After he made his third straight three to put Lowell up 56-50 late in the second half, he looked over at the UD crowd, flashed a megawatt grin and opened his arms wide as if to say: “How do you like me now?”
Asked about that afterward, he nodded: “The crowd really didn’t say that much to me. At a certain point I think they started to chant for me a little bit.”
Although UD would eventually take a one-point lead again, Lowell regained the 59-58 advantage with two free throws with 35 seconds left.
But UD still had a chance to win it at the end.
After a time out in which they were given a three-option play by head coach Anthony Grant, Flyer freshman guard Malachi Smith inbounded the ball from under the UD basket with 4.8 seconds left.
But his pass was tipped away by – guess who?
The deflection sent the ball skittering toward the sideline where UD guard Elijah Weaver grabbed it before it went out of bounds and launched an off-balance three at the buzzer that missed.
As he thought about that moment and all the others he had on this night, Faison, a grad student transfer from Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, smiled again:
“Man, I love this arena!”
He should because he helped orchestrate one of the biggest nonconference upsets ever at UD Arena.
As I think back over the past 30 years or so, only a few similar losses come to mind:
On Dec. 1, 2010, East Tennessee State upset the Brian Gregory-coached Flyers, 73-68, and that ended a 40-game streak of nonconference home wins.
I remember a December, 1993, loss to Towson State (72-70) that left the crowd booing Jim O’Brien’s team.
And then there was the 66-63 loss to Division II Missouri St Louis 11 months earlier in the 1992-93 season. It was the Flyers’ ninth loss in 10 starts and the crowd was booing that night, too.
The Flyers would go on to win just four of 30 games that season and I remember O’Brien’s painfully unvarnished comments after this embarrassment.
“We’re at rock bottom,” he said. “I feel absolutely terrible.”
His courtside interview after the game was broadcast throughout the Arena and when he said: “I did a bad job coaching tonight,” the crowd that remained applauded in agreement.
So you can see, things have been much worse than this.
This is a young, talented team still trying to find its way. But regardless, Saturday was not a good night for almost everyone connected to Flyers basketball – with the exception of freshman DaRon Holmes II and Smith; and, at times, redshirt freshman RJ Blakney and Weaver.
The Flyers were done in by poor offensive decisions, turnovers, errant first-half shooting and a game-long timidity that allowed Lowell to get 14 offensive rebounds.
Most glaring, they failed to get the ball to Toumani Camara, their best player. He took just two shots on the night, making one. The 6-foot-8 Georgia transfer had 15 points in Tuesday’s opener against Illinois-Chicago.
“We have to do a better job feeding him and getting him going,” said Holmes. “That’s our guy.”
“This was a hard lesson for a young team,” said Grant. “We had a lot of mistakes in our first game and found a way to win. Tonight we couldn’t get it done. It was a culmination of a lot of things. And when we look at the film, we’ll see a lot of it was self-inflicted.”
Grant did praise Faison though:
“He quieted the crowd with those threes. Those were big shots. He stepped up in the moment and gave his team a boost.”
The Flyers had trouble finding someone similar. Grant is still trying to craft a lineup that meshes the best and warned against longing for one guy to be the savior:
“We have to figure out how we can all go together. If we have to go where we need an individual…to be the hero, that’s probably not good for us as a team.”
That said, the Flyers did need someone to step up Saturday night and a few players had moments when they did:
The 6-foot-10 Holmes – the first true freshman to start for UD in nine years – led the team with 13 points and tied a Flyers record with six blocked shots.
“Blocking shots, finishing at the rim, dunking and being an inside presence when we need it – for a young guy, he’s playing terrific,” Weaver said.
Weaver came off the bench to score 12 points and hit two key three pointers down the stretch.
Blakney added 12 points and nine rebounds and Smith provided quick, aggressive play off the bench that certainly will earn him more playing time.
When the Flyers were trailing 28-21 at the half, Weaver said the message was simple:
“Nobody comes in our house and plays harder than us! This is our house! We just have to be the ones to take the fight to them. We can’t let them take the fight to us.”
And yet, isn’t that just what happened?
“Are you left with a bad taste about this one?” he was asked. “Didn’t they take control of your court?”
Weaver paused a second, then shook his head:
“Aaah, I don’t want to say that. They just played well, (but) they didn’t take control of our court.”
Yet, you saw and heard otherwise in that Arena hallway, outside the visitors’ locker room, where the smiling Lowell players were taking photos and Justin Faison was saying:
“Man, I love this arena!”