His Stats Aren’t Much, but Former Wilmington Standout Bennett Has Added Value to the River Hawks
LOWELL -- Like the rest of the UMass Lowell basketball players gathered in a Hartford hotel conference room last Friday, Connor Bennett was nervous and confused.
None of them had a clue as to what was about to unfold. They didn’t know head coach Pat Duquette and his staff had cooked up an elaborate prank with a punchline that would result in a feel-good moment and well-deserved reward for Bennett, a 6-foot-11 redshirt junior walk-on from Wilmington.
In a performance fit for an Oscar nomination, Duquette paced the room with a serious look and tone, while his players anxiously sat. A hotel employee entered, handed Duquette a blue folder and said, “Hi, sorry to interrupt, these are your charges.”
Duquette told the players room charges and incidentals are an NCAA violation. He said that one room in particular had multiple $24.99 charges for movies, plus tax, and asked who was in room 213?
Bennett raised his hand and said, “I swear on everything we did not do anything.”
Duquette responded by saying, “Well, Stephanie is waiting at the front desk, you got 15 minutes to resolve this.” If not, the team would spend the upcoming one-hour practice running full-court sprints. Duquette added: “I don’t even want to tell you the titles, that’s embarrassing.” But the players were too scared to laugh.
On Bennett’s way out, Duquette handed him the blue folder and told him to look inside and make sure the information was correct. Bennett opened the folder, unsure of what he was looking at, but noticed four pieces of paper related to UML. Duquette then handed him a pen and said, “You need this, Connor, to sign your scholarship papers?”
The team then erupted in applause and mobbed a relieved and excited Bennett in celebration.
UML captured the entire scene on video and sent it out from the team’s Twitter handle. At last check, it had nearly 60,000 views and had made the rounds all over social media.
“It was, honestly, absolutely surreal,” said Bennett. “A whole mixed bag of emotions. From incredibly shocked, upset and frantic to shocked, frantic and excited. I had no idea what was going on and when coach is serious, there’s no joking around. It was extremely convincing.”
Duquette said much of the credit for the idea goes to UMass Lowell Athletic Director Peter Casey, who met with Duquette to come up with a creative way to present Bennett with the scholarship. Casey and the UML assistants drew up the game plan and Duquette executed it to perfection.
It certainly was memorable
Duquette wanted the moment to be memorable for Bennett, a player the coach views as an authentic, high-character individual who has brought enormous intangibles to the program.
“Connor is an amazing kid, he’s inspirational,” said Duquette. “I’m not exaggerating when I use that word. He does the right thing all the time ... all the time. He’s a great teammate, he’s a genuine and positive person who truly cares about everybody. All the players recognize that and respect him. There aren’t many times when a walk-on provides a ton of leadership, but he does it on a daily basis.”
Bennett has only appeared in 10 games for the 12-9 River Hawks. He’s averaging 1 point and 1.1 rebounds in 5.5 minutes. For his career, he’s appeared in 38 games and is averaging 9.3 minutes.
It’s never been about the stats for Bennett. His role has always been to show up every day and try to get better, and push and support his teammates in the process. It’s a role he’s embraced and excelled in.
“I came into this program as a walk-on and not expecting a lot from it,” said Bennett. “I didn’t expect to play a lot of minutes and I didn’t expect to be welcomed like I was. To have my career capped off with a scholarship means so much. I put a lot of my heart into this team. I’m not a person who asks for a reward in return for hard work, but when I actually do get that it really does mean so much to me.”
Bennett was a 1,000-point scorer at Wilmington High School. He averaged 24 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks per game as a senior and was a Sun All-Star. The UML coaches talked to him about walking-on during the summer entering his freshman year, but Bennett planned to be a biology major and thought the workload might be too much to combine with the commitment of Division 1 college basketball.
He’s also someone with many interests, including a deep love for music and movies.
Halfway through his freshman year, Bennett realized he wasn’t enjoying biology and he was missing the enjoyment he got from playing basketball, which became even more evident when he attended a UML game. He discussed it with family and friends and decided to call assistant coach Biko Paris to see if the walk-on offer still stood.
“I called him and said, ‘Maybe you can give me some workouts that I can do on my own time and then maybe I could walk-on in the summer,’” recalled Bennett. “He said, ‘No, Connor, I’ll talk to coach Duquette and we’ll see if we can have you come in tomorrow.’ I was pretty shocked by that and pleasantly surprised.”
Bennett showed up the next day and talked to the coaches, then watched practice. He joined the team and redshirted for the remainder of the 2015-16 season.
“They were so welcoming. It was probably the best decision I made in my college career,” said Bennett, now a psychology major.
Tough transition early on
Bennett says the transition was very frustrating at first with the other players being miles ahead of him in their skill level and their knowledge of the system. He was making more mistakes than he anticipated and asked a lot of questions to make sure he addressed those mistakes.
“I don’t like being that guy who is down and out, but everybody was trying to pick me up and encourage me and I really appreciated that,” said Bennett. “It was frustrating knowing that I wasn’t succeeding like I hoped I would. It took probably two years of working in practice to get to where I needed to be. I’m still improving.”
Now an upperclassmen, Bennett tries to repay the favor and encourage his teammates as much as possible. It’s a helpful attribute on a team with six freshmen.
“What’s surprising to me is how hard he works every day, without knowing if he’s going to play. I mean, how many kids do that for four years? I think he’s gotten better, I think he’s a good player, I’m totally confident in him,” said Duquette. “I think he’s truly enjoyed it and he’s developed a lot of great friendships with the players.”
UML is in the midst of what could be its best Division 1 season.
“For me, I was skeptical of doing the video and I was skeptical that I could pull it off,” said Duquette. “When I saw the raw emotion that our players felt for Connor and the enjoyment that they got out of that, I was like, ‘Wow, this was a great idea.’ You could see how much they care about each other.”
Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone