Towson celebration

Towson players line up to shake hands after beating UNC-Wilmington, 66-61, at Towson Center. (Towson University photo / January 28, 2012)

Backs squarely against the wall as they carried on the NCAA Division I record for consecutive losses, players on the Towson men's basketball team got a badly needed dose of inspiration Thursday when coach Pat Skerry showed them Muhammad Ali's famed "rope-a-dope" boxing match against George Foreman.

The message of perseverance seemed to strike a nerve. On Saturday, the Tigers finally delivered a knockout blow of their own.

After trailing by as many as seven points, host Towson rode the offense of 6-foot-7 sophomore Marcus Damas and the defense of 6-8 senior Robert Nwankwo to a late eight-point lead, then survived UNC-Wilmington's comeback attempt. The 66-61 win ended the nation's longest losing streak at 41.

Nwankwo blocked Adam Smith's potential tying 3-pointer from the top of the key with two seconds left, and freshman Deon Jones converted a pair of free throws at the other end to seal the win.

"It just showed that you can take a lot of hits, but you definitely get your turn to swing back," sophomore Erique Gumbs said of watching the Ali-Foreman fight. "We may get beat down, but we always knew that we had the ability to fight. We finally got to throw our punch today."

Towson (1-22, 1-10 Colonial Athletic Association), which had set the Division I mark for futility this month by losing its 35th straight, hadn't won since Dec. 29, 2010, against La Salle in overtime. The team also had lost 28 straight in the conference.

"It was a lot of pressure," Nwankwo said of the streak, which put the team in an unwanted national spotlight. "As long as we kept our heads up high, we knew one day it was going to come."

Damas scored a game-high 18 points and Jones added 15 for Towson, which shot 58 percent in the second half. But it was the lock-down defense of Nwankwo that might have played the biggest role.

The lanky senior held forward Keith Rendleman, who had torched the Tigers for 14 points in the first half, to just two points the rest of the way.

"He locked down the kid," said Skerry, who had held Nwankwo out of the starting lineup for the first time this season after feeling he had lacked effort in practice. "I thought his defense won us the basketball game."

Nwankwo also came up big with the game on the line, stepping out to partially block Smith's 3-point attempt, which could've forced overtime.

"I knew he was going to try and be the heroic figure," Nwankwo said. "I knew he was going to try and take that shot, so I just made sure I had my hands up to block it."

Smith, one of the top freshmen in the CAA, went 3-for-16 from the field and finished with seven points, eight below his average.

Forward Donte Morales led UNC-Wilmington (8-13, 4-7) with 17 points, hitting all four of his 3-point attempts.

Towson held a 60-53 lead with just less than a minute left before nearly losing it, giving up consecutive 3-pointers to Tanner Milson and Trevor Deloach. UNC-Wilmington then cut the lead to one when Rendleman got free for an easy layup with 33 seconds left.

With a chance to give his team the lead, however, Rendleman missed a pair of free throws with 20.8 seconds left, and Gumbs finished the sequence at the other end with a fast-break slam.

"I've been here for the whole thing. I've seen it all," Gumbs said. "It was actually emotional. We've been waiting for a long time, working for it."

Said Skerry, "We're on the ropes, we're taking a beating, but we didn't get knocked down. That says a lot about these guys."