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Hartford wins America East, advances to first NCAA Tournament

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 31 Hartford at Bowling Green

BOWLING GREEN, OH - DECEMBER 31: Hartford Hawks guard Malik Ellison (1) goes in for a slam dunk during a regular season non-conference game between the Hartford Hawks and the Bowling Green Falcons on December 31, 2019, at the Stroh Center in Bowling Green, Ohio. Bowling Green defeated Hartford 81-68. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Austin Williams scored 20 points with eight rebounds and three steals, and Hartford earned an automatic bid to its first NCAA Tournament, beating UMass Lowell 64-50 on Saturday in the America East championship.

Fourth-seeded Hartford was in the title game for the second straight season after last year’s contest against Vermont was canceled due to COVID-19. The Hawks upset the second-seeded Catamounts this year in the semifinals to make it the first time in tournament history the title game didn’t include either of the top two seeds.

Sixth-seeded UMass Lowell won its first-ever Division I postseason game in the opening round and also knocked off top-seeded UMBC in the semis when Connor Withers matched a tournament record with nine 3-pointers.

After a slow 30 minutes, with Hartford leading 39-37, the Hawks went on an 18-4 run to build a 16-point lead. Hunter Marks scored seven points during the run, and the River Hawks went without a field goal for 6:29.

“Eleven years ago, I got this and I said `Let the dream begin,”’ Hartford coach John Gallagher said. “There were a lot of nightmares to get to this point. So many people to thank but this program, this neighborhood that we built, is so special. To put it into words is really hard. But we’re dancing.”

Traci Carter added 16 points and Marks finished with 14 for Hartford (15-8). Miroslav Stafl had 10 points and eight rebounds.

Obadiah Noel had 15 points and eight rebounds for UMass Lowell (11-12). Kalil Thomas added 11 points, and Withers had nine points and 11 rebounds. Noel was 5 of 15 from the field, and Withers 3 of 13 as UMass Lowell shot 29.5%, including 7 of 34 from distance.